Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Easton Farmers' Market to Occupy Vacant Weller Center

By Christina Georgiou

The vacant Weller Center building on the 300 block of
Northampton Street will soon be the home of the Easton
Farmers' Market's new indoor, year-round venue.
The Weller Center has been vacant for the past five years, but that is soon to change, it was announced Tuesday, and the Easton Farmers' Market will soon be further expanding to occupy it, along with the Easton Main Street and Ambassadors programs.

The Greater Easton Development Partnership, whose offices will also move to the space at 325 Northampton St., is purchasing the building for $900,000, and it will be remodeled to suit the new indoor farmers' market. The entire project is estimated to cost approximately $1.4 million.

Over the winter, the EFM held its first indoor market during the cold months at Nurture Nature Center, at 518 Northampton Street. The success of that venture, along with the growing popularity of the traditional outdoor market on Centre Square, convinced GEDP and city officials to expand on the concept by occupying a permanent space, said EFM manager Megan McBride.
EFM Manager
Megan McBride

"Transitioning into a permanent indoor market space will contribute to the sustainability of local farms," McBride said, adding that she expects the new market will not only draw visitors to the city much like the existing seasonal markets have, but also serve the growing residential population of Easton's Downtown neighborhood and residents in the West Ward, which is within walking distance.

"This really is a dream come true," McBride added. "To provide fresh locally grown good year round is something I never thought would come true...We're thrilled to be settling into this permanent indoor market space."

Plans for the remodelling of the Weller Building into a permanent home
for the Easton Farmers' Market.
Click on any photo for a full-size view

The remodelling and day-to-day management of the new space will be taken on by Jared Mast, recently hired by GEDP for the job.

Mast, a Cornell University graduate who formerly worked in education management, said his first tasks will be to hire an architect with expertise in food-related projects to remodel the building and to immediately begin to recruit appropriate vendors for the market.

Some will likely be existing EFM vendors, but others will likely be new, he said. While the current market is "producer-only", Mast predicted that some in the new market may be resellers, though those vendors will be selected to complement the existing philosophy and feel of the EFM.

The 16,000 square foot new space will probably accomodate 30 to 40 vendors in total, he estimated.

"I think the producer-only idea may have to give way to other ideas," he said.

Crafts and other appropriate hand-made goods may also be part of the mix in the new indoor space, he said.

This year's indoor winter market will open in the former Weller Center, he added.

"We're very excited to get into this space and get going," he said.

While the indoor winter market is planned to open in November as last year, the permanent indoor market's days and hours of operation, which will likely begin in the spring of 2014, are yet to be determined, Mast said, but "we'll be open more than two days a week."

The second and third floors of the building, comprising another 4,000 square feet, is office space. GEDP, the Easton Main Street Initiative, Easton Ambassadors, and the EFM office will all move into that area of the building.

The Weller Center, which still conducts health and wellness school outreach programs, will also lease space for its offices there too, for at least the next six months.

The remaining office space may be leased to other companies, or more likely for now, may become a cooperative office space that freelancers and start-up companies can rent on a short-term basis.

While it's uncertain if they will stay, murals on the walls of
the Weller Center that reflect its mission of health and
wellness education would also be appropriate  for the new
year-round home of the Easton Farmers' Market.

Melissa Lee, president of the Weller Center, said the organization, which had originally listed the building for $1.2 million is happy to have come to the arrangement with GEDP and looks forward to seeing the space be occupied again.

"One of the fun parts is going to be watching them use it, at least for a while," she said, noting that the EFM's healthy food focus is similar to the Weller Center's health education mission.

Mayor Sal Panto praised the project, saying it will fulfill a number of city and resident needs, as well as provide a good use for a space that has been empty for years.

"When I took office in 2008, this block was pretty bad, honestly," he said. "This building has been vacant for about five years, and it's time to bring it back to life.

Mayor Sal Panto talks about the new project at the
Weller Center building on Northampton Street Tuesday.
"As a person that owned a grocery store, I can tell you that food follows people, people don't follow food," he said. "We have people (Downtown) now, and more people are coming."

While the project will be funded by GEDP, likely with loan assistance from the city's Redevelopment Authority, Panto said the city will attempt to help in other ways too.

"There are a of of good grants out there for food, so we'll be looking for them," he said.

Panto also expressed confidence in Mast as the project manager, saying he's known Mast's family for decades and known him since he was a baby.

"He comes from a family that's extremely hard-working," Panto said.

The mayor also expressed enthusiasm for sustaining business in the Downtown in other ways than just food.

"I really do like the idea of cooperative offices on the second and third floors," he said. "I think that could be great for young people who are so internet-based."

The city is working to ensure there is enough parking to accomodate those that make the indoor market a destination, too, Panto said.

The rear entrance to the building will be utilized as well, said
Mayor Sal Panto, noting that it is adjacent to convenient
city parking lots on Church and North Fourth streets, below.
There will be a back entrance to the indoor food market, so patrons will be able to park in the city's Church Street and new North Fourth Street parking lots without having to truck their purchases around the block to load them into their cars, he said.

"It's really an important component of a successful Downtown, how your strategize your parking," he said.

Redevelopment Authority Director Gretchen Longenbach, who is also the city's liason with the GEDP, said the deal to purchase the Weller Center building had been in the works for the past six or seven months, and the final deal provides a win for all the involved parties.

"This particular project will allow us to meet a lot of our goals and solve a lot of our problems," she said.

With the impending sale of the Alpha Building and move of City Hall to the planned transportation center further south on Third Street in a little over a year, presumably the EFM and Ambassadors would shortly have been forced to find a new location.

The Main Street offices, currently located below the city's parking garage, which is likely to be demolished and rebuilt in a few years, also would have been forced to relocate in the future too.

GEDP's offices' move, currently in a store front the 100 block of Northampton Street, being consolidated into a building it owns will presumably provide a cost savings for the organization in the long run. Since a substantial chunk of its operating budget is provided by city funding, that will also translate into a saving for taxpayers over the long term.

Attendees at the Weller Center building on Tuesday applaud
at the announcement of the Easton Farmers' Market's
new year-round indoor market.
While the impending project has just been announced, some nearby residents are enthusiastic about the plan.

Dennis Davis, who relocated to Easton from Brooklyn about two years ago and lives in the Pomeroy building across the street, said he's been wondering when the vacant building would again be occupied since he moved in.

"I think it's a great idea," he said, adding that he makes the effort to shop locally and support city businesses. "I get the feeling this downtown area is coming back to life."

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