Ottawa's ByWard Market struggles with identity and purpose

Outdoor fresh produce stands like these are disappearing. Is the Byward having a health crisis? Photo: Some Rights Reserved.

Outdoor fresh produce stands like these are disappearing. Is the Byward having a health crisis? Photo: Some Rights Reserved.

It's plenty challenging to produce local food: erratic weather, pests, disease and lots of long, hard work. But that's just the front end. There's still the selling side, full of its own quirks and obstacles.

If producers don't sell into a wholesale network, where can they set up direct sales to the consumer? How often do they get to (or have to) spend time behind a booth, instead of working back on the farm? Should a market allow vendors to sell just anything, or require offerings to be locally produced? (And so on, and so forth.)

Last week a series of feature articles by the Ottawa Citizen's City Hall Bureau took a hard look at problems affecting an Ottawa landmark.  The reporting (by Joanne Chianello, David Reevely and Derek Spalding) focuses on ByWard Market specifics. But quite a few of the generalities apply to any such venture: what does it take to make a market function well?

The ByWard Market harkens back to the early 1800's, before the city was renamed Ottawa and went on to become Canada's capital.

According to the first of three articles about the ByWard Market today, the venerable location and major tourist destination is in trouble:

…the outdoor vendors have been disappearing, especially the sellers of flats of flowers who can’t compete with the likes of Costco and Loblaw, who in turn have expanded their offering of gourmet food stuffs. In the past four years, the number of “agri-food” stands has fallen 30 per cent to 59 stalls.

If left unchecked, this trend could see the market reduced solely to a tourist/entertainment destination, much to the chagrin of some retailers who are looking to attract customers throughout the day to their shops, whether they’re hair salons, art galleries or food retailers.

Concerns about the health and future of the ByWard Market led the city and the area retailers to hire a New York City non-profit organization, Project for Public Spaces, for an assessment.

Chief among several recommendations was restoring the sale of fresh food as a foundation of area activity. (One of the problems the ByWard Market faces in that regard is how many other successful farmers market type operations have sprung up across Ottawa.)

David Reevely's second article in the series hones in on the ByWard Market's main building. It's a heritage structure with a number of flaws and limitations.  There's also fair degree of disagreement about what the proper mix of tenants and products should be.

In the last of the three main articles, Derrek Spalding tackles one of the most vexing issues in most urban situations: parking. (The article includes a helpful graphic on where parking can be found.) A supplemental article assesses the considerable challenges presented by managing traffic in that tight area.

As is often the case, there's no one sector that can smooth it all out. In a perfect world, good urban planning would mesh with public/private partnerships and nurture vibrant locations where growers can sell to happy customers. All that while allowing brick and mortar stores to flourish too – because consumers need both types of outlets.

In the real world, that's a pretty tall order. It can amount to a never-ending work in progress.

When you think of farmers markets, which ones are "getting it right" and why?

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