Imagine a happy, comfortably jostling crowd on a clear day in late May. The season’s first fruits have just appeared. Ripe, red strawberries, beautiful cut flowers and seedlings to take home to plant in one’s own garden are displayed here. Textile arts, jewelry, photography and more are available in the open-air kiosks. Everyone seems cheerful and glad for the new season. Food vendors are selling popular favorites—sandwiches, fresh roasted corn, pizza and tacos. Live music fills the air. Life is good and this is the Chattanooga Market, held April through November at the First Tennessee Pavilion.
It was the late 90s when Chris Thomas and his wife Kim took the southerly route to their hometown of Bowling Green from Dallas. He had spent several years working in Texas as a software engineer, before leaving that company and starting his own, in partnership with two other entrepreneurs. They were working collaboratively with a French company when they were acquired. So began a journey of self-discovery.
Thomas remembers they really loved Chattanooga. “The river, the mountains and trees—it had all the things you lose sight of in a large bustling city,” he says. “It was beautiful!”
Before selling his business, Thomas had to travel quite a bit, now it was time to reevaluate his priorities. “I wanted my family to be first.” With their young children enrolled at a local parish school, they met other parents and became involved in a variety of family activities—one of them being an Octoberfest celebration that partnered the school with the Chattanooga Market. The Market was then owned by Nick Jesson who was looking for a buyer. The two began to talk. “It was one of the rashest decisions I’ve ever made,” says Thomas. “But within the week he had sold us the assets and began making introductions around town.”
Thomas had also dabbled in the music industry. He remembered that Texas was full of family entertainment venues. Why not here too?
“We thought it would be cool to have a place with a stage in an open environment—I didn’t think it would be that hard,” he adds with a smile. Although Jesson was forthright about the things that didn’t seem to be working, there was more to learn. That was 2007.
Attorneys at Miller & Martin helped the new owner attain nonprofit status. In 2008, the Market weathered the economic downturn, and although sales dropped off somewhat, vendors still broke the $1 million mark for the first time. It took another four years to get the Market to the break-even point.
Today, with sales at $3.7 million, Thomas looks back on the actions that made a difference. Specific improvements like developing a capable staff, expanding vendor capacity, applying heavy marketing efforts and gaining the support of local media were initiated in Thomas’ own methodical way. Step by step, he and his team have educated the regional populace as to what a contemporary open-air, fresh local food and arts experience actually can be.
Key to the Market’s rising success was the team Thomas put together. Melissa Siragusa was hired as an early manager. Later Paul Smith, a Chattanooga area native became the market operations manager and Siragusa took over as marketing director. Smith’s wife Leslie, developed graphics for the various themed events as Siragusa and Smith reached out to engage farm and area food vendors, local chefs, craftsmen and a variety of presenters to create imaginative weekend activities that would begin to draw visitors from around the region. Expansion was inevitable.
“It took a couple of years to settle into our roles,” says Siragusa. “Suddenly it was huge. We felt this enormous responsibility to these people—would they have a good time, would they be safe?”
The 50,000 square-foot pavilion sees anywhere from 10,000-12,000 people each weekend and has 2,000 parking spaces. Physical expansion into other parts of town seemed to be the next growth opportunity.
In 2010 the first River Market was held on the Aquarium Plaza. Although smaller—the plaza only holds about 200 people—it reaches a demographic made up mostly of tourists to the area.
“The River Market provides an added layer of vibrancy to the Chattanooga experience,” says Cindy Todd, chief marketing and branding officer for the Tennessee Aquarium. “Guests, especially those from out of town, love shopping for items that are handcrafted and can only be purchased here. Musicians and working artists add even more to an already appealing atmosphere on the plaza surrounding the Aquarium.”
While the Aquarium appeals to tourists, the Market at First Tennessee Pavilion, raised from its industrial ashes for public use back in the mid-90s draws a diverse crowd especially during Market discovery or theme events, when people come based on specific interests. Doris Matter of Atlanta comes up frequently with a group of friends. “We look forward to coming to the market several times each summer. I like the fresh summer foods, the artisan breads and cheeses.” says Matter. “And, it makes a special outing when friends visit from out of town.”
This summer amid all sorts of festivals and celebrations, the Market will hold it 15th birthday party on Sunday, June 5th. Throughout the season there will be Blue Grass music, ice cream socials, cook-offs and community culture—and the thankfully ever-present fresh local foods.
Locals come for peaches during the annual Chattanooga Magazine Peach Festival in the heat of midsummer. Hundreds of crates of peaches sell out during the course of the afternoon. The wide variety of produce increases throughout the summer with Oktoberfest culminating in the largest weekend—now a three-day event.
Thomas has been adamant that everything from market kiosks be crafted or produced by the vendors themselves. No brokers have been allowed. Challenges were inevitable. Early vendors like Lupi’s Pizza found it difficult at first to keep ingredients from wilting in the heat. Now they have a food trailer to keep fresh foods cold. “No question about it, I know Lupi’s participation at the Market has raised brand awareness for us in the community,” says Lupi’s owner Dorris Shober. “We continue to meet people that don’t know Lupi’s exists and we actually have five stores now. We often hear at one of our stores that a customer found out about us from the Market.
“To me one of the primary reasons the Market exists is to provide a place for farmers to sell and the community to buy local food. Lupi’s is a huge proponent of local food, using local beef, local ground sausage and local produce, in season. By supporting the Market for 15 years, Lupi’s has shown its support, too, of local food and I think people recognize that.”
Area farmer Thomas O’Neil from Signal Mountain Farms looks forward to opening day, when he gets up early for a six-hour setup. O’Neil started his certified organic farming business in 1998 and was the first farmer who began bringing produce to the Sunday Chattanooga Market. “We stuck with it and it’s become a very productive market,” says O’Neil. He also goes to a market in Atlanta, but says the Chattanooga Market is “a much bigger display, to rival any in the country in quality, color and presentation.”
Listed in Frommer’s guides as one of America’s Best Public Markets, the Chattanooga Market is small in comparison to many. Philadelphia’s public market occupies the former Reading Terminal train shed in the heart of Center City. After being revitalized in the 1990s, the Reading Terminal Market now features more than 80 restaurants, shops, and farm stands.
Since opening in 1907, the famous Pike Place Market in Seattle is multi-level and has grown to include, aside from its famed fish market, numerous buildings and businesses including antique dealers, flower stands, bakeries and shops overflowing with clothing and handmade art. One of the largest open-air markets, the Santa Fe Public Market, includes over 150 vendors boasting foods and arts with a Southwestern flair.
All these public markets have wonderful cultural benefits for their respective communities, but they also have a deep economic impact. Thomas and Siragusa say the Chattanooga Market has a $3.5-$4 million direct economic impact on the local economy. That spins off to an estimated $30-$40 million regional indirect benefit.
“The most amazing thing is that we are integrating with the lives of people in the region,” says Thomas. “You hear young people now saying—going to Sunday Market is what I remember about being in Chattanooga—that’s meaningful.”