Could Downtown Austin Get a Permanent Public Market?

October 27, 2013 by Kate Harrington

A City of Austin economic impact study that came out earlier this year recommended exploring the possibility of a permanent market in downtown Austin. The city’s report makes clear that Austin’s food sector has a lot of muscle when it comes to economic impact — according to the report, the food sector here supports 43,000 jobs and adds $4.1 billion in economic output to the region.

The Downtown Austin Alliance wanted to delve deeper into what it would take to make a permanent public market a reality, and hosted a presentation to explore the subject a few weeks ago. The DAA brought in David K. O’Neil, a nationally-recognized market expert, to conduct the forum. (You can see his PowerPoint presentation here.)

O’Neil discussed the trickle-down effects successful public markets can bring to their local economies, including benefits for local businesses and a draw for tourists and locals alike. Unlike typical development projects, markets should ideally open debt-free, bury capital costs and be operationally self-sustaining, O’Neil said.

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Austin currently has weekly open-air markets like this one. Could Austin get a permanent public market soon? Photo credit: Counse (cc)

They can take several forms: open air, which Austin sees weekly in the Sustainable Food Center’s farmer’s markets; market sheds, which are part permanent structure and part open air; and market halls, similar to the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco. Market Districts, like Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, combine all those elements.

The approximately 150 forum attendees were asked to weigh in on features they considered most important in a hypothetical permanent Austin public market. Local vendors and food and easy access via transit topped the wish list.

While the forum didn’t go into where a public market might be located in Austin, attendees mentioned the Ladybird Lake area, Seaholm and the downtown area in general as possibilities.

In his Downtown Austin Blog, Jude Galligan also brainstormed some possible locations for an Austin public market.

Public markets were once a staple in American cities, but declined in the early 20th century. Austin too, had a permanent marketplace – the building was named City Market House and was located where the Austin Police headquarters are now. Austin’s market, like many others around the country, was ripped down. But markets of all sizes have been making a comeback. According to O’Neil, the number of farmer’s markets nationwide has been climbing by more than 20 percent each year in recent years.

Austin certainly has many beloved urban farms and farmer’s markets, and it will be interesting to see if this discussion about a permanent downtown marketplace moves forward. We will post updates if and when it does.

Read more: Downtown Austin Alliance

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Written by Kate Harrington

Kate is a former reporter, most recently for the Austin Business Journal, where she covered real estate, economic development and transportation. Since 2010 she has been running Thumbtack Communications. Thumbtack provides writing, editing and marketing services. Before moving to Austin in 2002 Kate lived in her native New England, which she still visits often to escape the Texas heat.