Sonoma Market Hall update

Three months after the announcement of a proposed Pike Place-style Market Hall in Santa Rosa, what's new?

Proposed site for the Sonoma County MarketHall
Proposed site for the Sonoma County MarketHall

Here’s an update to what’s happening with the Sonoma Market Hall, proposed for construction in Santa Rosa…
Back in March 2010, plans were announced for the Sonoma County MarketHall, a 70,000 square-foot food market at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The $10 million proposal by Mark Rivers, CEO of Idaho-based Brix and Co., envisions a Pike Place-style retail space with 140 vendors and 100 permanent jobs for the county.
In the three months since the hall’s announcement, Rivers has been gripping and grinning around the county like a politician, trying to secure vendors, permits and general support — mostly with success, but not without a few hurdles.  Highly ambitious, well-funded and potentially lucrative to the tourist trade, Rivers’ MarketHall has been met with a mix of unbridled enthusiasm, wary skepticism and mixed-allegiance by the oft-divided local food community. The truth: Not everyone knows which basket to put their eggs in.

Here’s why: Rivers’ proposal isn’t the first to tread these waters. For years, hopes have been loosely pinned to a smaller-scale food market in Railroad Square, largely tied to SMART development. Though the Railroad Square committee say they still plan to pursue the project, it just hasn’t had the momentum (or funding) that Rivers is promising. And then there are the foodie factions, each with their own ideals, politics and long-term visions for Sonoma County’s food trade — Slow Food, Farm Trails, existing farmer’s markets, chefs, producers and those of us who just love food.  As several chefs have told me, it’s a minefield to know where to place your allegiance, for fear of upsetting a friend, or worse, a valued purveyor.
But the bottom line is that Rivers’ MarketHall is moving forward. With serious locomotion. BiteClub caught up with Rivers to see where things stand.

How is this different than any of the other Markets (Ferry Building, Oxbow, etc) that, frankly, have had their share of ups and downs?

Rivers: I think the Ferry Bldg and Oxbow are pretty high-brow, gourmet food courts, more than public markets. Our MarketHall has a broader arrange of product and, will have that festive, bustling atmosphere of diverse offerings from ag, wine and food. I like to think that those two facilities are grandma’s high tea. The MarketHall is more like your Uncle’s backyard barbeque, with organized chaos, kids and something for everybody.
Who is funding this project?
Rivers: My company is self-funding this project so, we can move quickly without any handcuffs to the credit markets or other development complications. Rivers and his company were advisors on the Harrod’s Food Hall and restaurants in London, and had ownership of the Jack London Square in Oakland and its planned public market, according to documentation. The Sonoma County Fair Board are the land lessors of the facility.

Where does the project stand, currently?
Rivers said he’s currently submitting for permits, and hopes to have that portion wrapped up by the end of June. He plans to announce the first tenants to the building by July. If all goes well, he hopes to have the building completed (it’s about a five month build he says) and ready to open by summer 2011.
What’s the biggest hurdle you’re facing?
Rivers: I worry about the entitlement process that can get bogged down and sideways. We’re not asking for public subsidy and, we don’t need special treatment. I just hope that local government will see a project that is creating jobs, serving the broad public and showcasing the community.
Okay, the elephant in the room is the Santa Rosa Farmers Market at the Veteran’s Hall — which would be right across the street, potentially. How does that work?
Rivers: I’m hoping to work together with Paula (Downing, market manager for the Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Farmer’s markets). I really hope to work together on many projects. We have farmers who can’t get into the local markets and, purveyors who need retail access. We have chefs with bold ideas for new concepts and, entrepreneurs with dreams, too. This is the ultimate sales and marketing platform and, we’ll attract a broad array of folks.  Rivers sees a “vertical movement up” for current farmer’s market vendors who want to graduate to a six-day-a-week permanent spot.
Why did you pick Sonoma County?
Rivers: The available bounty and the embedded food culture are the top reasons. There is so much product, its everywhere and there is lots of it. Many farmers and purveyors want and need another sales outlet. The market of locals is strong and, tourism is deep. Its ideal really.
Do you really think farmer’s can afford a stall at your market hall?
Rivers: I’m confident that we can merchandise this facility. Our proforma rental rates for a day are less than the rate card for the current Santa Rosa market. We have a built-in set of economics that works to insure success for vendors. Some higher-volume players might play close to market rents so that some smaller-volume players can comfortably exist.
What about anchor restaurants?
Rather than one or two large restaurants anchoring the market, Rivers envisions an 800 square-foot dining experience that will offer street food vendors, and “little shingles” for restaurants — sort of mini kitchens where restaurants can offer featured dishes — and an opportunity for entrepreneurs to try out dining concepts.
What’s the mix of vendors?
Rivers said the mix will be a pretty equal distribution between fresh agricultural produce (the farmers), artisan foods (like cheese, meats, olive oils, etc.) and chef-driven showcases.
What do you think you’ll bring to the food community that doesn’t already exist here?
Rivers is reaching out to chefs and restaurants, who’ve had difficulty organizing into any sort of cohesive marketing group in the past. “We’re offering what we’re calling the Chef’s Circle, a $25,000 marketing fund to promote Chef Days, cooking demos, booking signings and events at the market. We see this as a rallying point and promotion for local chefs,” said Rivers.
How will visitors get there? Will there be a shuttle from downtown?
Rivers: I think we will to connect visitors and locals alike from the traditional downtown core. We’ll also have shuttles fo seniors or those without vehicle access. We’re near bus routes and, we’re adding ped and bike access, too.
What will the building look like?
Rivers: We’ve got a great local architect, Del Starrett. We’ve been looking at design inspirations from agriculture and winery buildings. It will look and feel like Sonoma County. And, lots of outdoor patio and plaza spaces for dining, displays and families.