The grand opening of the Zebulon Farm Fresh Market last spring was well attended, as several of the Saturday market’s dates were in its maiden run.
The general trend in attendance, however, was a downward one as the market’s season coursed from May to October. That was the driving factor for town leaders to announce last week plans to relocate the market from its launching site at the Zebulon Community Center to the Zebulon Municipal Complex, where its second season begins May 7.
“As the season went, it waned and we struggled to get customers,” Zebulon Parks and Recreation Director Greg Johnson told the town board last week. “We cannot afford that. Some of the local farmers who come out there depend on it and need folks to purchase their goods, and they have quality goods to sell.”
In giving a report on the ups and downs the budding market experienced, Johnson said the community center might not have been the best site in terms of gauging how successful a farmer’s market could be in town.
That initial location was chosen for several reasons – like opportunities to tie in programming held there on Saturdays and to use the adjacent community park, but mainly because of its fit with the scope of the John Rex Endowment grant helping the market get its start.
The grant focuses on providing children and families better access to healthy foods and active living opportunities. It provides funding for the first three years while the town works to build sustainable support for the market.
The attendance issue doesn’t only affect the vendors. The town needs more customers so it can attract more vendors, whose fees are expected to help wean the town off the grant funding completely by 2018.
Market manager Maurine Brown estimated the market crowd peaked at 700-800 on a couple occasions, whereas it saw only about 100 people on the slowest of days. It hit lulls at times like the start of the school year or when other events were taking place in town, but drew good crowds on opening and closing day, and days when the market featured special programming.
“There was a tendency when other things were going on in town that you knew it,” Brown said. “There were some ups and downs.”
There were 18 vendors on opening day and an average of 11 vendors throughout the season. There were never fewer than nine vendors for the market.
More visible location
Johnson said moving the market to the most prominent location in town – the front lawn at town hall – will give it the best chance to succeed. He said doing so will more accurately substantiate whether residents want the service to continue.
“It’s a beautiful iconic area,” he said. “It’s a high-traffic area, it’s centrally located, highly visible, easily accessible and it’s a natural gathering place. People like to be here and they want to be here. We feel like a lot of people are going to come to (a market at town hall). We really feel strongly about that.”
Johnson referenced the successes of other events held at town hall, including Zebulon Night Out, Festival on the Lawn and annual Easter egg hunts.
The difference in traffic counts at the two locations was a significant factor in the shift. Johnson told the board an average of 4,700 vehicles pass by the community center each day, whereas about 16,000 pass by town hall.
“That’s a whole lot more visibility and whole lot more people are going to see this happening,” he said.
Mayor Bob Matheny asked what the measuring stick will be on whether the move proves successful or not.
“I hope it doesn’t come to it, but you’ve got to be objective and come up with a call,” Matheny said.
Johnson said it will come down to monitoring the customer base, evidenced by profits turned by vendors.
Commissioner Glenn York questioned whether the relocation would interfere with grant goals of serving a particular demographic. Johnson responded that the grant does target serving low-income families, but that it also recognizes the need to locate the market in a place where it can be profitable for vendors and thrive into the future.
“(Serving low-income families) was one of the factors we did consider when we chose the community center because that was determined to be a low-income area,” Johnson said in a follow-up interview Thursday. “But even here (at town hall) there are a lot of low-income families near where we are going to be.”
Johnson told the board Wednesday that when the market closed for the holidays last year, it lost momentum. The plan this year is run the market even on holidays on Saturdays through October.