What’s next for the Madison Public Market?

It’s been more than 15 years since the idea for a Madison Public Market was born, and there have been many stops and starts along the way.
Public Market photo in front of the location it will go

As a small business owner who hopes to sell her red chili paste, ginger-garlic sauce and peanut satay sauce at the Madison Public Market, Josey Chu has high hopes for what the local food destination may become.

“I envision a group of vendors that are truly diverse — different ethnicities, different cultures, different backgrounds. I envision a place where there are various items for sale and various people’s dreams are coming true,” says Chu, who created her Madame Chu Southeast Asian sauce company in 2017. “I envision walking in there and seeing a lot of happy faces, where teenagers will come and the elderly will come and people will be sharing and talking about the progression of our state. It will be a place where people truly come together and where new ideas can be generated.”

While Chu’s dream of a welcoming, inclusive community anchor closely aligns with that of the proposed public market’s organizers, the creation of the market itself has dragged on for many years. And now, some 15 years after the public market project began, what those involved hope will be a bustling, socially diverse melting pot is still far from fruition.

Over the years, the plan for the $13 million public market has faced many challenges. It’s survived the political rollercoaster of three different Madison mayors, a handful of hurdles related to different locations and funding issues.

And like it’s done to everything else, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the project, causing some to question its overall feasibility and others to suggest that the whole idea might collapse.

Josey Chu with her sauces

Josey Chu (above left), a potential vendor and the owner of Madame Chu, points out that a diversity of businesses will likely draw more customers to the public market. (Photo by Julia Matthews)

Despite their many struggles and others’ complaints over the lack of progress, however, project leaders have remained steadfast in their support. They have dug in their heels at times, while also showing a willingness to pivot to new ideas.

That ability to roll with the punches seems to be paying off. Many things have fallen into place for the project recently — including some substantial, linchpin federal funding — and project leaders feel they’ve turned a corner.

“There was a point where things were up in the air, [but now] the project is probably as strong as it’s ever been,” says Jamaal Stricklin, president of the Madison Public Market Foundation, a nonprofit organization created exclusively to operate the market once it opens.

With the location and funding now locked in, “we have the vendors ready to populate the market [and] we’re excited to move forward with finishing up the construction documents,” he adds.

So when might the Madison Public Market finally open its doors?

“It’s pretty much a shovel-ready project at this point. If everything runs smoothly and the foundation takes care of its business [and] the city comes through with their end of the bargain … it’s just a couple of more steps, and we’re going to be breaking ground,” continues Stricklin. “I’m optimistic that we could have a market in 2022.”

Boon for Vendors

The proposed public market’s delays are hardest felt by the space’s future vendors, because the possibility of having a physical location that draws customers to them would be such a boost to their businesses.

“It’s going to allow me to offer things I can’t offer without a physical space,” says Carmell Jackson, owner of the popular Melly Mell’s Catering, which offers favorites like catfish, fried chicken, barbecue and seafood dishes on the menu. Jackson wants to have hot meals available at the market and also offer refrigerated meals that customers can heat up at home later. “That’s not something I can offer right now,” she says.

Jackson was one of the first vendors announced for the market this fall. As one of the permanent vendors chosen for the market, Jackson and four others were each awarded a city grant of $19,000, which will help her outfit her market space and purchase equipment like that refrigerator and a steam table, which will keep her ready-to-eat foods hot and make them quick to serve.

Carmell Jackson in a kitchen

The main floor will house vendor spaces, including Melly Mell’s Catering, owned by Carmell Jackson.

Another of the first five permanent businesses announced for the market was Perfect Imperfections, a company owned by Jasmine Banks that sells handcrafted, natural personal care products like chocolate lip balm and lemongrass and poppy seed soap.

Banks says having a physical location at the Madison Public Market would help her business. Currently, she sells her products only through her website or at seasonal festivals or fairs, most of which have been canceled because of the pandemic.

“I don’t want my customers to have to wait two or three months in between seeing me if they need something, because then what’s gonna happen is they’re going to find somebody else to buy from,” says Banks, who started her company in 2016.

She also looks forward to creating personal connections in person. “We all crave face-to-face interactions,” she says. “I want to see people, call them by their name, ask them about their kids. People like that recognition.”

Jasmine Banks sitting in a chair with her products

Jasmine Banks owns Perfect Imperfections, one of the market’s permanent vendors. (Photo by Julia Matthews)

Other permanent vendors announced for the market include Caracas Empanadas y Más, Little Tibet and El Sabor de Puebla.

Chu also says that having a physical presence at the public market would allow her to offer additional products above and beyond her current line of Southeast Asian condiments.

“Let’s say that you decided you want to make some chicken curry, and instead of buying a packet of chicken curry or some pre-made curry sauce, you can come to my spice store at the market,” she explains. “And you can tell us if you don’t want it to be too spicy or if you love it really spicy, tell us to throw in a couple of habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers. It would be a sauce made just for you on the spot — completely customizable.

“Or, if you have high blood pressure, we could make you a teriyaki sauce with no sodium and no need for preservatives. We would make it right there, on the spot and it would be as fresh as you could get.”
Chu also sees the expected variety of vendors — in all there will be at least 30 permanent businesses located inside the market — as a benefit that draws in more customers. And the variety of offerings will complement each other.

“Having that diversity is more powerful than being of only one particular cuisine, one type of vendor,” she explains. “Because if I cannot provide for the customer, I can direct them to another vendor that could satisfy their particular need.”

Location, Location, Location

Public Market 2

The Madison Public Market plans to house at least 30 permanent businesses. (Rendering by MSR Design)

Unlike funding sources or even the vendors that will fill the public market, there’s one thing you can’t change once the market has opened its doors: its location.

So, like other major, city-funded projects, it’s no surprise that the debates, negotiations and arguments over where exactly the public market will be built has been the largest cause of delay for the project.

Initially, the public market site was slated for the Brayton parking lot on East Washington Avenue, just a couple blocks northeast of the Capitol. Then, the idea bounced over to what is slowly becoming Judge Doyle Square, which is closer to Monona Terrace. Then things changed again and the location moved farther down East Washington to a spot just east of Burr Jones Field. But when the developers and the city couldn’t settle on a price, that location was tossed.

“We wanted to build something new, and we thought that would be better, faster and cheaper, but that didn’t turn out to be the case and it got a little too complex,” recalls Anne Reynolds, chair of the Madison Public Market development committee, which is managing the logistics of construction and creation of the market. “And I think we were all a little bit disappointed about what we could afford when we built new.”

Finally, in 2018, organizers and city leaders decided that instead of buying land and building new, they would circle back to a previous idea of using the Fleet Services building on the corner of First and East Johnson streets. It’s one of the city’s garages used for repair and maintenance of police cars, garbage trucks and other city vehicles.

“There wasn’t the funding to buy a site just anywhere in Madison,” adds Reynolds. “And we’ve been committed to doing this market as affordably as possible. So this spot fit.”

The Fleet Services building is also quite a bit bigger than new construction plans called for, and it sits on more than 3 acres of land.

Public Market 9

Exterior of Fleet Services Building (Photo by Larry Chua)

The fleet garage space is essentially an empty shell with 45,000 square feet of internal space, making it a very large blank canvas for the Minneapolis architect firm of MSR Design, which also designed the Central Library renovation and the more recent makeover of the Madison Municipal Building.

The extensive space “will allow us to have both indoor and outdoor market space,” says Amanda White, a community engagement specialist and consultant who has worked with market planners since 2016. “So we’re planning on having outdoor seating — a kind of lounge area that we’re calling the market porch.”

And because of its current use as a vehicle repair shop, “the building has these big garage doors — and we’re keeping those, so we’ll be able to open them in the warmer months and people will be able to just go in and out to the porch area from the main part of the market hall,” White says. “The other areas around the building will have more tables and seating [and] space for outdoor food carts. So if we wanted to have food cart vendors doing some daily or weekly vending, they could do that. It will be a really flexible space.”

The main market hall will house the 30 permanent vendors like Melly Mell’s and Perfect Imperfections and will also have an anchor tenant like a brewpub, restaurant or cafe on one side. It will have 20-foot ceilings and large windows to capture natural light.

“The market hall is the marquee of the market where there will be businesses of all sizes,” explains White. “So from very small startups to longtime, established Madison favorites, it will have a wide variety of businesses and cuisine. It’s really important from a visitor perspective to have those interesting, vibrant, different types of foods and products.”

There will also be a full, approximately 1,200-square-foot commercial kitchen, a walk-in cooler and vendor dry storage off the main hall. An area called the South Hall will be used to house temporary vendors and could also be rented out for events such as wedding receptions, business conferences or parties.

Public Market 6

A second-floor mezzanine will overlook the whole market hall space. (Rendering by MSR Design)

And as an added bonus, “in the fleet building, there’s already a second-floor mezzanine that overlooks the whole [market hall] space,” adds White. The space is primarily for seating, but it will also offer market offices and areas for community groups to gather. “It’s another flexible space,” White says.

“The whole idea with the market is keeping a lot of flexibility throughout to welcome a lot of different types of organizations, individuals, families and celebrations,” she says, adding that with all the expected activity, there will “also be room for about 120 parking spaces” outside.

But all of the necessary construction inside, as well as some cosmetic work outside, such as finding artists to paint large, colorful murals on the building’s drab gray exterior, will take time.

For that, Reynolds, who has been head of the market development committee for nearly a decade, hopes construction can begin next summer. “We want to be realistic about it,” she says. “But once construction starts, we think it will be a nine- to 15-month process.”

Anne Reynolds

Anne Reynolds is the chair of the Madison Public Market development committee, which is managing the logistics of construction and creation of the market. (Photo by Larry Chua)

Finding the Funding

Along with vendors and location, another integral part of the public market pie, is, of course, the funding. And a project this big needs a lot of it, which means there need to be a few different sources, and that’s led to complications, delays and uncertainty.

To cover the $13.2 million price tag — which is just for the construction and renovation of the Fleet Services building — there has always been a mix of funding sources: the city, federal grants and private donations raised by the market foundation.

For its part, the foundation has raised $3 million from corporate and private donors over the years. “We’ve fulfilled that commitment,” says White, adding that they still want to raise about another million dollars for programmatic and operational seed money for vendors and to “have a strong operating reserve for emergencies.”

In recent years, the city has committed $7 million in funding for the public market, but because of major financial shortfalls of between $25 million and $30 million related to the coronavirus pandemic, the market became less important to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in late summer as she was preparing her 2021 city budget. “I love the idea of the public market,” the mayor told NBC15 TV at the time. “But in terms of being a responsible executive, [the market] can’t be very high on the priority list … public health [is] at the top of the list right now.”

But then, weeks later, when the mayor turned over her capital budget to the City Council, she reversed her decision and included the $7 million for market funding. But she makes very clear that the $7 million, which comes from a tax incremental funding district, will be all the money the city will be contributing.

“When I approached this year’s budget, I knew that we were going to have to question absolutely everything because of the tremendous negative impact of COVID-19,” the mayor tells Madison Magazine now. “Ultimately, I decided that I was willing to wait and see if the public market foundation can raise the rest of the money that they need to raise in order to be successful, with the understanding that the city is not going to provide operating dollars, even though we are still willing to provide capital funding.”

The mayor adds, “It’s a great project. And it will be great if it can succeed. But it’s very important for it to be able to stand on its own financial legs.”

Part of standing on its own financial legs means that market organizers still need to fill that last $3 million gap with federal grant dollars, and that has proven to be its own headache.

Originally, the market foundation, following guidance from the city, had sought federal money through the “New Markets Tax Credits” program, but that funding became less effective as the pandemic stretched on, says city Economic Development Director Matt Mikolajewski.

So they’ve gone a different direction. “We’ve recently pivoted to looking at an Economic Development Administration grant to fill that $3 million hole,” says Mikolajewski, explaining that “this is utilizing funding that was made available through Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

White, the market foundation consultant, says the EDA grant application will take about a month to complete. They’ve hired a grant writer who will be working closely with the city to finish it. She says, “We feel like we’re in a really strong position to receive the funds,” and they hope to hear back that the market was approved for funding by late November or early December.

Vendors are MarketReady

With fundraising having gone as far as they can take it and the location literally set in stone on the east side, the final part of the Madison Public Market project is what the customers will care about most: the vendors.

Unlike the other two elements, there has been no problem with the vendor piece of the puzzle.

And to ensure that vendors were on solid footing to open up shop at the market on day one, project organizers teamed up with local groups like the Northside Planning Council to create a tailor-made program called MarketReady that helped vendors through the market application process and offers them business mentoring.

Through the MarketReady program, 30 vendors have been selected as “a very specific, targeted group to be prepared to be a vendor in the market,” explains Mike Miller, a city business development specialist.
These vendors, Miller continues, are from “groups that were historically not included or unable to start small businesses in the city of Madison, [such as] low-income folks, people of color, immigrants, veterans and women.”

He adds that through the city’s racial equity and social justice initiative, “we decided that [the public market] could be a great opportunity to help businesses in those target groups to get up and running.”

And to that end, the MarketReady program has been a resounding success. More than 80 vendors applied, and of the 30 selected, 83% are people of color, 63% are women and 33% are first-generation immigrants.

Jamaal Stricklin in front of fleet services building

Jamaal Stricklin is the president of the Madison Public Market Foundation, a nonprofit organization created exclusively to operate the market. (Photo by Larry Chua)

“We’re baking into the pie this inclusivity and diversity and equity,” says Stricklin, the market foundation president, who is also the sales director at SuperCharge! Foods. “This is a chance for everyone to have an opportunity to represent their culture and represent their food or their wares.”

And, Stricklin adds, with all that’s been happening lately, we’ll need something like the public market. “Given all of this civil unrest we’re having and [the fact] that we’re looking at opening it up in a post-COVID era … we’re as apart as we’ve ever been, so this is going to give us an opportunity to get back together and heal through recognizing and celebrating our diversity.”

But the function and goals of the public market are about much more than simply selecting vendors — they’re about helping make sure those vendors survive.

To that end, the financial viability of being a vendor at the public market and a customer of the public market is also being closely monitored.

“A lot of it is about the economics of being able to attract vendors who can keep their prices low and who also have a following in the community,” explains Reynolds, adding that the temporary or month-to-month market stalls will be a chance for vendors to test out the feasibility of being at the market. And for customers, she adds, “We’ve talked about doing things like having a family fun night where you have meals for $5 or less.”

Stricklin echoes Reynolds’ comments and adds, “This won’t be a place of white gloves and chandeliers. I mean, we’re repurposing a garage — it’s going to be a little more rough around the edges, and that’s OK.”

With all these moving parts, plans and people involved, Chu, the owner of Madame Chu, says it’s not surprising that the public market has been slow to materialize.

“All of the vendors are willing to work so hard. We are ready to contribute to the community and grow and hire people,” she says. “If we have the community support and we can be self-sustaining, it’s well worth the wait.”

Steven Potter is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"