CR’s most popular attraction shifts to serve new communities
By Dave DeWitte
The addition of a GO Cedar Rapids Information Center at the NewBo City Market last month was just the latest step in the evolution of a community project that got off to a slow start, but seems to get better and better.
The market has become the hub of activity in Cedar Rapids’ increasingly vibrant New Bohemia district, and attracted about 300,000 visits in 2015, up from 230,000 in 2013, its first full year.
“In three-and-a-half years, we got the ‘there’ there,” observed Scott Kruger, a higher education fundraising specialist who was hired in January as executive director to bring a more philanthropic focus to the organization. He sees the market doing more to support the city’s nonprofit and entrepreneurial communities, by hosting events such as walks and runs and providing more opportunities for guest merchants.
“This is very much a public space and we think of ourselves as a public space,” Mr. Kruger said. “We promote health, happiness and well-being. In doing that, what the public sees are fun events, interesting food and fun things to buy.”
The market was developed from scratch as a nonprofit enterprise in the former Quality Chef Foods factory, which was provided at a nominal cost by the city of Cedar Rapids after a $6 million capital campaign. Funding included $3 million in private donations, $750,000 from state Community Attraction & Tourism grants and $500,000 from the city.
Visitors can now sample wares from 23 vendors, most of them specializing in handcrafted foods ranging from artisan breads to sausages. They can sip craft beer and wine at the bar, take cooking classes at the Kirkwood Culinary Kitchen, buy fresh garden produce from nonprofit Matthew 25, or enjoy events that range from car shows to outdoor musical performances.
The vendor list is expanding this summer with the addition of Grateful Crepe, a Cedar Rapids-based creperie that already operates a food truck, and Rawlicious, a vegan deli specializing in desserts and healthy drinks.
“We’ve really kicked in our events schedule this summer,” Mr. Kruger said. “We’ve had over 500 people for Meet Me at the Market on Thursdays – a wellness where people are doing group runs, group rides, Zumba and pilates on the lawn.”
Mr. Kruger said the market’s outdoor music series Rock the Block has also taken off this year. The series is currently held every other week, but the market’s leadership team is interested in making it a weekly draw.
Beyond serving as a hub of community life, the market was developed as a kind of small business incubator for the food segment of the Corridor’s entrepreneurial economy.
Jerry Zimmermann of Iowa City opened Maggie’s Farm Wood-Fired Pizza at the market in 2013. Encouraged by the response from market customers, Mr. Zimmermann and his wife, Carolyn Brown, have since added two mobile pizza kitchens to cater special occasions, and are close to a decision on whether to add a permanent location in Coralville.
Mr. Zimmermann had been cooking wood-fired pizza for friends as a hobby after trying different variations of it during their travels. The couple was encouraged to join the market as a vendor by then-executive director Ann Poe, and Kurt Friese, a restaurant owner and publisher of Edible Iowa River Valley, who was heading up the market’s food efforts.
“I didn’t know if my pizza was good enough, but Kurt assured me it was the best he’d tried,” Mr. Zimmermann said.
The couple hired an experienced pizza restaurant manager to lead the staff, but found it necessary to part ways with him shortly before opening, leaving Mr. Zimmermann to oversee the business, along with his work at Foundations in Learning, the couple’s reading intervention and assessment business led by Ms. Brown. He gradually built a strong staff that delivered the consistent, quality product he wanted, helping Maggie’s Farm grow with the market traffic.
That story has been repeated several times as vendors use the market to test their business model and then move out into the community, Mr. Kruger said. Vendors can start out paying as little as $450 per month for a 10- by 10-foot vending stall, complete with utilities.
The energy from NewBo City Market has helped attract investment and tenants in the surrounding New Bohemia neighborhood, according to Scott Olson, a veteran commercial real estate specialist and city council member.
“Whenever I have somebody in from out of town, I bring them down here,” Mr. Olson said. “It’s always alive. There’s always something going on.”
Mr. Olson said he’s getting a lot of calls to lease space in NewBo, but nearly all of the space hitting the market through redevelopment or new development is fully leased upon completion.
“The market has created a vibrance around it – additional restaurants, retailers, housing and venues for entertainment.”
Revenue to support market programs comes from three sources: lease revenue, private donations and sponsorships, and sales of tickets to special events. Mr. Kruger said community support – in the form of donations and from using the market – has been critical to its improving fortunes.
Some new attractions that could be in the offing are movie nights at the market, outdoor events such as reunions or weddings in tents on the grounds, and possibly a better outdoor stage designed with protection against the elements.
Listening to the community has been key to finding the market a place in the hearts of local residents, and Mr. Kruger says the market staff of three and its board of directors remain all ears.
“We need to ramp up more in the guest vendor market, the artisan market, the farmers market in the future,” Mr. Kruger said. “We want to do more fundraisers, like awareness walks for breast cancer or juvenile diabetes research. We want to listen to the community and do what they want.”