Public Market Needed In Downtown Wheeling

Editor, News-Register:

The Public Market is an exciting new venture that will grow Wheeling’s economy and strengthen our farmers. It takes Grow Ohio Valley’s commitment to food access and support for local farmers to the next level. We have been working toward this for years, and love talking about it. I’m disappointed that Grow Ohio Valley was not asked to comment before The Intelligencer ran three front-page stories about the project; stories that misrepresented the initiative and the facts that surround it. This letter aims to set the record straight.

Here’s what we are: a year-round, non-profit farmer’s market that brings local and natural foods to downtown Wheeling. We’ll offer local produce, eggs, meat, dairy, and more from family farms in our region. We’ll also offer bulk and natural foods, and healthy grab & go selections that are unique to our market.

Here’s what we are not: a direct competitor to any other business in Wheeling. I love Jebbia’s and Neely’s. I shop at both places often and I’ll keep doing this even while my organization opens this new market, because these are different places, with very little product overlap, if any.

The Public Market invests in local farm businesses, who lack viable year-round sales outlets. This market helps to level the playing field for family farms, who struggle to compete against the massive factory farms that enjoy $20 billion per year in federal subsidies. Currently there are no year-round markets for local food, and farmers either face prohibitively low returns on wholesale accounts or spend valuable time and labor away from the farm at Saturday markets for a few months of the year. I know, because I’ve been a farmer growing food in Wheeling for the past decade.

By selling local food on consignment, the Public Market will return 70-80 percent of sales dollars back to farmers, compared to 15 percent in traditional grocery. In just four years, The Wild Ramp in Huntington, West Virginia, returned $1.2 million to farmers using this consignment model. Local Roots, a consignment market in Wooster, Ohio, returned over half a million dollars to farmers last year alone. Over 25 local producers have already confirmed interest to sell their products through our market on consignment this year, and the list is growing.

Like other downtown revitalization efforts, the Public Market benefits existing and new businesses alike. Local food markets like ours advance Wheeling by attracting young people, who make up over 50 percent of organic consumers, overwhelmingly value natural and whole foods and seek transparency in where their food comes from (according to a 2017 Forbes study). Specialty markets have been proven to increase property values by an average of 17.5 percent — more than book stores, bike shops, or gyms, as shown by Reconnecting America’s 2007 study. This benefits cities and property owners alike.

In addition to locally produced foods, the market will offer natural and ethically-sourced foods to fill the unmet demand for these specialty items, while increasing our product offerings to make our business feasible. For these natural products, we are committed to prioritizing local suppliers when possible, including pursuing regional sourcing for items such as flour and wheat, or regional coffee roasters. Other staples, like bananas and avocados that can’t be sourced in the region, will come from suppliers with a demonstrated commitment to human rights and treating third-world farmers well. That is one of our commitments.

The Public Market will offer local and natural food because we are committed to improving the health of our population, holistically and year-round. West Virginia tops the “worst” lists for health: We are number one in the nation for diabetes, over one in three are obese, and we face a growing opioid crisis.

To make the Public Market’s food accessible to all, we will accept SNAP, WIC, and Senior Vouchers, and have secured “SNAP Stretch” funding from the WV Food & Farm Coalition to increase the purchasing power of low-income shoppers.

Grow Ohio Valley’s function is to conduit money into the hands of local farmers. No one at Grow Ohio Valley will personally profit from the Public Market. Look at our staff and you’ll find a group of underpaid, highly qualified and committed people who’ve put more lucrative careers on hold to work toward realizing Wheeling’s world-class potential.

Grow Ohio Valley has already invested over $25,000 and 1,500 hours of staff and volunteer labor on this project, and raised more than $25,000 in additional funds toward start-up costs. We have asked the city for less than 6 percent of the total start-up costs to support site improvements to the Intermodal. These electrical and plumbing improvements will ready the building for commercial use, and are permanent upgrades that will facilitate future endeavors in the space. We have not asked the city to fund any of our equipment, furniture, or other costs.

The city of Wheeling has made significantly higher contributions to private businesses including Orrick and the Health Plan, because of their potential to drive economic development and meet our community’s needs. The Public Market fits that bill; a driver for economic development.

Huntington, Morgantown and Charleston have all made significant investments in local food as a driver for economic development. Last year, Huntington was named the Grand Prize Winner in the “America’s Best Communities” competition. The Wild Ramp is specifically celebrated on the city’s award page. In Wheeling, a local and specialty food market in downtown is wholly consistent with four long-term economic planning initiatives developed in the last five years, including our own Envision Wheeling comprehensive plan.

We’re doing this because an investment in local food has proven to be an investment in a thriving local economy. Shifting just 10 percent of the Wheeling MSA’s annual food spending to local food would inject $35 million into our local economy.

There is both high demand and widespread support for this project. The USDA reports that local food is the fastest growing sector of agriculture nationally. Nearly nine out of 10 shoppers say the availability of local food is either “very” or “somewhat” important to their choice of a primary market, according to the National Grocery Association. Most importantly, a 2012 market research survey of 658 Wheeling-area shoppers found that 92 percent of respondents would purchase local fruits and vegetables and 75 percent would shop at the Public Market at least once a week.

The Intermodal Center sat vacant for almost a decade. The Public Market will transform it into a space for economic revitalization and community health. The Public Market is about more than just food. For our home to truly thrive, we must recognize the interconnections between the health of our population, support for regional farmers, and a flourishing local economy.

Danny Swan

Co-founder, Grow Ohio Valley

Wheeling

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