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Tuesday, Feb 7, 2023
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Market Forces

Dale Steele could be a poster woman for fortitude.

For more than a decade she has tried to organize a public market for San Diego, something along the lines of Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

Steele eventually joined forces with Catt Fields White, and the vision finally materialized. Their San Diego Public Market recently opened its giant factory doors to shoppers.

The 2-acre site is a gritty former boiler factory in Barrio Logan, which has a new coat of orange and bright green paint.

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On its first day in business, the farmers market had 58 vendors. SonRise Ranch sold grass-fed meats. Majestic Garlic sold garlic spread. Carlsbad Aquafarm Inc. sold oysters, mussels and seaweed.

The two founders are not new to business. White, the market’s chief operating officer, is currently involved in three other farmers markets, and has a background in the restaurant industry. Steele, the CEO, grew and sold a specialty mail-order business in the late 1990s.

Years in the Making

Steele has been pursuing the public market idea since 2000, after a family visit to a similar market housed in some old buildings in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

During the past decade she pursued putting the San Diego Public Market in redevelopment areas. There was the old police headquarters near Seaport Village. There was the commissary building at the former Naval Training Center in Point Loma (now the Liberty Station development). And there was East Village, which has developed with the building of Petco Park.

Steele talked with developers and civic leaders, but none of the ideas panned out.

Steele and White found each other in the late 2000s while both were helping to organize a San Diego regional food hub. The hub was envisioned as a place to aggregate local farm products for institutional buyers.

They got to talking about the public market idea.

“Catt and I think alike,” Steele said. “We actually do things, not talk about doing things. We said, ‘Let’s just go do it.’ ”

Pretty soon, they were looking seriously at the industrial site in Barrio Logan.

The co-founders ended up raising capital through Kickstarter Inc., the online service that lets entrepreneurs pool the resources of multiple small contributors. The two found 1,379 backers. In about half a month, they raised $146,000.

They had only asked for $92,000. “We met our goal on day eight” of the 16-day online campaign, White said.

Going forward, the two say they may dip into their savings, and that private investors are in the wings.

“We’ll be able to create income opportunities from the get-go,” White added.

Steele and White signed a 10-year lease on the Barrio Logan property for an undisclosed amount; the lease has two 10-year options.

In all, the organizers say it will take $1 million to renovate the site. The organizers hope to do it in phases.

The first phase, with 21,000 square feet, will contain farmers market stalls from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Sundays.

A permanent indoor public market could eventually follow.

The site is a mishmash of industrial and commercial buildings. The property also includes three cottages and a small storefront that used to be a barber shop. The residential part of the property came with established fruit trees: figs, loquats, avocados and bananas. There are also a couple of tomato plants.

“See?” Steele told a visitor. “Food really wants to be here.”

The cottages could be live-work spaces for food-related businesses, the partners said. White says she envisions people making salami and cheese, roasting coffee and baking bread in the spaces.

A Big Kitchen

The founders envision a complex of buildings at the back of the site, fronting Newton Avenue, as home to a 6,000-square foot commercial kitchen, commissary and cold storage facility. The facility could be open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The market would schedule time in the kitchen to allow sellers to prepare homemade products. (Because of health laws, “homemade” items sold at farmers markets can’t really be prepared in the home. Sellers must prepare them in a certified kitchen.)

It will take about $200,000 to do that portion of the project right, Steele said, adding that she hopes a major corporate sponsor will step forward to underwrite the kitchen in exchange for naming rights.

There’s also room for classrooms, the organizers said, possibly for K-12 nutrition education or continuing education for chefs.

The venture is not without some risk.

Shermain Hardesty, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics and directs the University of California’s Small Farm Program at UC Davis, said there are signs of “farmers market fatigue” among established farmers in some urban California areas.

A farmers market in Sacramento’s historic core failed, Hardesty said, yet high-end farmers markets at San Francisco’s downtown ferry building and Napa seem to be doing well.

The old saying about real estate applies: “Location, location, location,” she said.

Steele and White said they like the Kickstarter financing model because it created 1,300 potential customers, who can also act as a focus group for market concepts.

And the delay may have worked in their favor.

Steele noted that customer interest in locally grown products and local chefs is probably greater now than it would have been 10 years ago.

She also noted it would have cost $7 million to develop the building at Liberty Station. Barrio Logan may take only $1 million.

“It’s the best place we could have landed,” Steele said.

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