Instead of Whole Foods, could OKC put together a public market? 

Having a Whole Foods Market in downtown Oklahoma City would be nice.

But some say a long-anticipated arrival of the trendy food outlet doesn't completely answer downtown's need for retail geared both toward supporting new downtown residents and visitors to our city.


Consider the Milwaukee Public Market, where community leaders concluded it would be just the ticket to answer those needs more than a decade ago.

Organizers of the Wisconsin public market noted that similar operations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., and Vancouver, British Columbia, were proving their value as popular destination points both for locals and out-of-towners.

"Residents point to them as not only icons of civic pride, but also as part of the fabric of their lives," Bill Haberman, a Wisconsin lawyer who served as honorary chairman of the project's steering committee, wrote for The Business Journal of Milwaukee in 2004 as his group made a final push to raise money for the project.

The market opened several years ago, and today operates with nearly 20 year-round vendors selling everything from cheeses, meats and baked goods to fresh-cut flowers and seafood.

It caught the attention of Oklahoma City leaders, who recently attended an International Downtown Association conference in the city.

"I was in the Milwaukee (public market recently), so I can vouch for its quality and its value to the area it is located in," said Russell Claus, Oklahoma City's planning director. "And I have been to a number of similar public markets around the country and around the world, over time. Every one of them is extremely successful," he said, noting each market offers a range of hard-to-find products and provides atmosphere.

"That is the missing piece. It is a people-watching treasure hunt as much as anything else, and you don't get that in your normal grocery store."

Creating a successful public market just doesn't happen overnight, however.

In Milwaukee, it took the steering committee more than five years to raise about $5 million in private dollars to help build and open that project.

Here in Oklahoma City, Burt and Jody McAnally continue to renovate the Farmers Public Market into a unique public market hybrid that will combine a downstairs public market with an events center on the building's upper floor.

The McAnallys bought the building in 2002. Shortly after, with the help of a 20-year, $378,000 federal Economic Development Administration loan provided through a local nonprofit in Oklahoma City, they started to rehabilitate the property and return it to its original grandeur.

Their latest renovations make it possible for live music performances inside the hall, and the market celebrated that mark this month with its first big concert in decades.

Now, the McAnallys are ready to turn their attention to getting the public market " a major draw to the building's ground floor, a fan-shaped indoor shopping area popular from the time it opened in 1928 to the early '70s " returned to full operating status.

Jody McAnally, a veteran public markets shopper in cities like Los Angeles and New York City, has high hopes for its success.

McAnally remembers the public market in Los Angeles as a destination point both for locals and those from out of town, a place where shoppers could get meat, breads, fish and other staples. She said she is striving to create the same type of experience here in Oklahoma City.

"That was always our plan, to have all of those things that I used to be able to get when I went to the market in Los Angeles or in New York City or even in Dallas," McAnally said.

"It was unbelievable, the amount of traffic that went through there. We would love to recreate that here, and that has always been our goal. It is our next step."

Because the McAnallys privately own the property, the process is taking some time. "We don't have the same kind of support mechanism" as other markets that are owned by nonprofits or municipalities, she said.

The McAnallys are not the only city developers aiming to create a public market.

Veteran Bricktown developer Chuck Ainsworth also envisions such a market in the popular entertainment district.

Ainsworth considered putting one into his Candy Factory project, and recently has been discussing the possibility of putting one into the Sherman Iron Works building on the opposite side of the block.

The building, on the corner of Main Street and Oklahoma Avenue, has tall ceilings and an open floor plan in its single-story portion that would work well for the concept. The two-story part of the building also has potential. Together, the building would provide 18,000 square feet of space.

Ainsworth believes an Oklahoma City market there would stack up well when compared to others, such as the River Market in Little Rock, Ark., that he says appears to be a great success.

"I think people like Kamp's, Big Sky Bread Company, the Grateful Bean Café and produce growers, farmers, beekeepers and various craftsmen are out there and would love to participate in something like this," he said. "But what is missing is someone who could be kind of the quarterback of the deal " someone with an enormous amount of energy to pull something like that together. So the crux of the deal is finding someone or some entity that can operate one."

Claus applauds both the efforts of Ainsworth and the McAnallys.

A public market, he said, would allow Oklahoma City to "show off its locally prepared foods that you just can't get anywhere else: homemade jewelry, T-shirts, picture frames, honeys and jams and things like that. There is a lot of creativity and production on that front, but there is no outlet for it. People find it very hard to get it in the public eye," Claus said. 

"That is where these public markets provide a great civic function, in providing an opportunity for those people to be able to sell their goods. It is an incubator for new businesses, in that sense, and it is just a very attractive place to be. There is just no downside to the public market."

Jim Cowan, executive director of the Bricktown Association, agrees: "I think it would work," he said. "For a market or grocery store to be successful near the Central Business District, it is going to have to draw more people than just those who live downtown. So, I think it is a very viable concept. Now, it is just a matter of taking it from an idea stage to figure out what is the right property and who is going to get in there and put the deal together."  "Jack Money


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