Bringing 17th Street Market back to life

A gathering place since the 1700s, the historic market gets new caretakers, a new facelift, and a new lease on life.

“It has always been this place…where commerce was done, where the city came together to discuss things back in the time when it was a big open plaza,” said John Sydnor, discussing the history of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market. “It was the center of the city. It was the heart of the city.”

Sydnor is one of the people behind new efforts to defibrillate the city’s old ticker. He leads Enrichmond, the nonprofit that took over operations for the longstanding Shockoe space earlier this year.

“The goal is to go back to that original open square. The public square,” Sydnor said about what the market will be by the end of 2016. “The public aspect that it was in the late-1700s and 1800s, where it was a meeting place, it was a place for commerce–especially for food. To get back to that.”

Getting back to that involves refurbishing both the market’s public perception and its space. And there’s perhaps no better organization to do those things than Enrichmond.

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“We’ve been involved with the market in the background for 22 years,” Sydnor said about Enrichmond. Years before becoming involved with the market, the nonprofit was born out of controversy.

“In the late 1980s, there was a development plan offered to the City for Belle Isle. It was a condo development,” Sydnor explained. Members of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board wanted to establish a fundraising arm to ensure preservation and growth of the City’s parks and outdoors. The possibility of developers erecting a condominium community on Belle Isle “was the perfect chance to get something started because a lot of environmentalists, naturalists, lovers of the River…wanted a way to be more active in the guidance of the James River Park System.”

Enrichmond1 became the foundation that oversaw fiscal matters related to supporting Belle Isle and the park system. “[We’ve since] expanded and grown from just being a fiscal agent to now being more proactive,” Sydnor said. Enrichmond has over 100 local partners and has helped create numerous “Friends Of” groups to oversee Richmond’s individual parks.

Soon after forming in 1990, Sydnor said Enrichmond got to work with the 17th Street Farmers’ Market because “people wanted to donate funds and support and contribute to the well-being of the farmers market.”

“As the market began to decline for many different reasons [between 2000 – 2010], we and the City thought it was time to launch an effort to revitalize the market,” Sydnor said. “The idea of revitalizing the market came from many independent studies from outside organizations about how to revive the farmers’ market. Every single one of them pointed to a nonprofit, separate from the City, to run [it].”

In years prior, the City controlled most farmers’ market operations. City control meant City regulations, which stymied progress. “The City…has lots of rules and regulations related to procurement, related to contracts, leases, and entering agreements,” Sydnor said. For instance, simply adding a new food truck vendor requires the City “go through this approval process, [then] the agreement has to be approved…there’s all kinds of procurement and rules and regulations…management of an entity becomes complicated and difficult.”

Not if Enrichmond does it. “A nonprofit, whose sole purpose is the benefit of the market, can get through all of that stuff much easier,” Sydnor said. “The goal is efficiency and focus.”

Some of that renewed focus means trimming this year’s festival offerings down to 10, from last year’s 14 (PDF).2

“We want to focus on the really good events,” Sydnor said. “[The market] needs a lot of small successes to build itself back up. What we’re trying to do is have one ‘win’ after the other to try and bring back the Farmers’ Market, as a venue, that is family friendly, food-focused, and fun.”

He said the biggest challenge will be improving the weekly farmers’ market event. “The perception of the [weekly] farmers’ market needs to be changed.” While mum on specific initiatives, Sydnor said Enrichmond and the City have ideas on how to revitalize the Shockoe farmers’ market to become a weekend staple for nearby residents and city overall.

Last month, the City unveiled it’s latest plan (PDF) to update the 300’ x 80’ space. Designed by Richmond-based Baskervil, the renderings depict a large open space that can accommodate a weekly farmers’ market, as well as a public gathering space at all other times.

Sydnor said designers examined the Charlottesville Historic Downtown Mall, as well as other spaces in D.C., New York City, and other cities. “We’ve been looking at Asia, India, and Europe as well.”

Sydnor said that organizers of the new 17th Street Market will convene in the coming days to discuss changes to the latest plans. He said that the City hopes the new market will be unveiled sometime in 2016.

Current 17th Street Market materials will get a new home. Next year, Enrichmond will celebrate its 25th anniversary by staging a competition to award materials from the market’s green shelters to be repurposed across the city. Schools, community gardens, “Friends of” park groups, and others will compete for the materials to reuse them for overhead shade, water collection, filtration, etc. “We have way more requests that have come in through word of mouth than we will have sheds,” Sydnor said.

Asked if he’s optimistic that the grand vision he, Enrichmond, and the City have for the 17th Street Farmers’ Market will materialize, Sydnor’s resolute. “I do. I really do. And I would say that off the record or on,” he said. “It will be a wonderful part of Shockoe once again.”

photo by Ron Cogswell

  1. Then called the Richmond Parks and Recreation Foundation. 
  2. Absent from this year’s schedule: Cinco de Mayo Festival, Tomato Festival, BBQ and Craft Beer Festival, Purple Martin Festival, Shocktoberfest German-Hungarian Festival, RVA Food Cart Rally & Craft Beer Festival, Shockoe Hops n’ Rock Concert Series. New events include: RVA Brew-B-Q, Kickin’ Chicken Wing Fest, and the Richmond Cider Celebration 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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