Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is lucky to have had a "zealous nut." In the late 2000s, Sarah Ordover wanted a place to buy goat cheese and ended up launching one of America's best city squares in the process. There's a unique synergy between the bustling market that builds local businesses and the public gathering spaces around it that bring people together while driving foot traffic to emerging vendors. It's no surprise that NewBo City Market has a big impact on the economic opportunity and social life of Cedar Rapids.
Following a massive flood in 2009 that devastated 10 square miles of downtown Cedar Rapids, a group of concerned citizens led by Sarah Ordover asked Project for Public Spaces to help plan a new, indoor-outdoor public market to bring life back to the city’s core. The city showed us a number of buildings that were suddenly now available for a market—a science museum, the bus terminal, and even the public library.
But it was a nondescript warehouse located in the center of the historic Bohemian neighborhood adjacent to downtown, dubbed “NewBo,” that caught our fancy. The structure had the right dimensions for a market hall, was available for $1, and– because of its huge "front yard"– was ideally situated to help revive the neighborhood’s main street that was also almost completely vacant after the flood.
From this humble beginning, a remarkable community institution has emerged that shows how community social life and business success are closely intertwined.
The Hatchery Business Incubator
Over the past decade, NewBo City Market has focused its mission as a business incubator called the Hatchery, where vendors in permanent stalls get discounted initial rent, technical assistance, and even child care stipends to grow their businesses. Special attention is given to underrepresented and marginalized businesses, and today, 70 percent are women-owned, and a third are owned by people of color or immigrants. As a result, the market has become a cultural epicenter of the city in terms of access to diverse international foods and products--with half of vendors selling prepared foods and the other half retail products. Social interactions between diverse vendors and customers are part of the fun of going to the market!
NewBo City Market has temporary stall spaces both inside and outside. This creates an opportunity to expand the mix of permanent tenants while letting people try out a business idea at a low cost. The market hosts specialty market days for groups like young entrepreneurs and black-owned businesses.
Meet Me at the Market Yard
The market has an inclusive mission to be the heart of the city for everyone. The Market Yard is a space that works for big and small events. In the summer, there are regular concerts, yoga, and other activities that make the space a popular destination and a beloved square.
Events relocate to the market hall in colder weather. There, too, are regular events (Thursday Trivia, Friday Bingo) as well as special activities that enliven the market interior and support its businesses.
A market and a square are a powerful combination. A happy accident of choosing this site for the NewBo City Market was that it had a huge "front yard." It could have been designed as a parking lot for the market, but fortunately, most of it was intentionally set aside as public space, the Market Yard. More often than not, a market – especially an indoor one – is separate from a city square. When they can work in synergy, both work better.
Something is always going on at the market, and people know it. It's the regularity and predictability of the programming, along with the vendors open daily, that keep people engaged and coming back. People have learned, without consulting a calendar, that there's a concert every Friday and Trivia every Thursday, and annual events to look forward to like the gingerbread house competition. It is called the "cultural epicenter" of the city because of the natural way it brings together people from diverse backgrounds.
Social connections build economic vitality and family livelihoods. The market would not have worked nearly as well had it not become the "town square" of Cedar Rapids. In fact, many businesses in the market have been incubated and moved on to permanent locations, to the detriment perhaps of the market but to the benefit of the city and it's budding entrepreneurs. This market square is truly the heart of the community.
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