By 9:30 am on a Saturday morning, the streets of Downtown Lakeland are filling up with people. Groups of sweaty runners gather around tables at the local coffee shops comparing training plans and sipping coffee. Young couples push strollers along Kentucky Avenue. Friends catch up over a hot breakfast watching the passersby, and children giggle as they chase each other along the sidewalk. This scene has played out in ebbs and flows over the decades since Abraham Godwin Munn donated the space to the city in 1889. This plot of land would become the centerpiece of the business district of Lakeland, a social gathering spot for generations of friends and families, and a site for commerce throughout the evolution of markets over more than 100 years.
Jim Luna waves from the far side of Mitchell’s Coffee Shop. “Let’s walk and talk,” he says. “I need to deliver papers to several of the vendors.” Jim is contracted by the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) as the market manager for the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market. He actually pitched the idea for this market and has been its manager since day one. By trade, he is a landscaper.
“I was doing the downtown landscaping. You have to do that stuff after hours, ya know?” He shrugs his shoulders. “When you are down here watering plants and everything is quiet, your mind wanders. I could just see it; I could picture a market and all the families and vendors. It just seemed so perfect!”
Nothing is ever perfect. While the concept of an open-air market seems simple, many farmers markets fail. Markets are complex, blanketed in policies and procedures. And that’s to say nothing about marketing, vendor relations and garnering community support. The Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market wasn’t a quick and easy success either. The LDDA supported the market for a full decade before it finally turned a profit. Today, LDDA’s full time staff of 3 each have duties related to the Market. LDDA staff manages all marketing and administration. Jim is contracted annually as the Market Manager.
Julie Townsend took the position as Executive Director of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority in 2014 with a top priority “to reorganize administration of the market so it could be more successful and a financially self-sustaining program.” A long-term successful market creates interest and activity in the heart of the city. It benefits downtown businesses and creates a viable business option for new ventures! It also cultivates an amazing culture of care in the community connecting farmers, crafters, and creators to a diverse population in a relationship as old as time…commerce. The Farmers Market opens doors for vendors. It also opens possibilities for consumers to have access to goods to which they might not otherwise.
Jim and I stop at a tent where 3 vendors have congregated for a quick chat. He distributes papers and one vendor asks about his back. It’s quickly clear that these vendors have all formed strong relationships. Jim does the introductions in the style of a proud parent, tossing in little tidbits about their successes.
“Benjamin runs Honeycomb Bread. He sells amazing breads and people line up to buy out his gluten free options! I bet he’s already sold out for the morning…” Benjamin smiles and nods. His morning started hours ago. It takes a lot of work and an early morning to bring high quality, fresh bread to his customers.
Handmade, Homegrown, Homemade, Heartfelt… Every vendor here has a story. These people really care about the things they grow, craft, and sell, and it’s obvious. But starting a business is hard. The initial investment can be financially restrictive. The market has “categories” and only allows a few vendors to sell in each one. Vendors must apply online providing forms, photos, and proper permitting. Some vendors need insurance, some require permitting by the US Department of Agriculture. Others fall under Cottage Food Laws and the labeling regulations are the biggest requirement. Vendors who only sell at the market can function under the umbrella of the Market’s Business Tax License. The Farmer’s Market has been a blessing for many of these vendors, an easy entry point as they define and refine their concept and grow their customer base.
“We are the business we are today because of the Farmer’s Market,” raves Wendy Johnson from Krazy Kombucha. She dreams of having a brick and mortar business, but the regulations are almost insurmountable. Kombucha, a fermented beverage known for its tangy flavor and gut healing benefits falls under the restrictions of the USDA. To sell her 18 flavors in a stand alone building requires a commercial kitchen, 3 compartment sink, air gap, refrigeration, and a grease trap with a 900-gallon tank. Many vendors can sympathize with these issues. The Farmer’s Market is a savior for these businesses.
As Jim and I hand over the last of his papers, I see a young family sitting on the curb sipping ginger beer slushies. The youngest child gleefully offers a sip to his father. A dog on a leash strains his neck to the child for attention. The father and the man share a smile. A vendor shakes hands with a customer. A woman waves across the street to another woman. People slip out of the sun into the permanent businesses that line the streets. Right here, on this one street, a community has come together to support each other. If downtown is the heart of Lakeland, the pulse here is strong. The ghosts of decades of commerce walk along these same streets and a community of care has flourished along the edges of Munn Park.
“You get to know your customers,” Jim points out. “The exchange is personal and meaningful. We have many businesses that started on these streets and have been able to grow because of relationships made right here!” He begins rattling off businesses. “Patriot Coffee, Born and Bread, The Nectary, Swan Brewing, The Salty Cow…. Even businesses who don’t have their own location have expanded offerings inside of other established Lakeland businesses. Ethos Coffee is inside several coffee shops and restaurants. Honeycomb Bread is featured on some menus, too. There are plenty more.”
The original City Market sits forever in history on the dusty, fragile historical map in the Lakeland Historical Archives Room at the Lakeland Public Library. The Market sat on “the other side of the tracks”, to the north of the original passenger station. To the south were the permanent stores, the higher end goods and the fancier clothing. Today, the Downtown Farmers Curb Market crosses these same tracks populating the street both north and south. Perhaps this is just coincidence or perhaps this is a beautiful representation of how meaningful commerce can tie together lives, build bridges over boundaries and cultivate care throughout cities.