The Market Building in downtown Roanoke has been a hot topic since I came to the city beat in 2007. In fact, I checked our archives yesterday and today’s front-page article on the vendors makes 100 stories in which I’ve used the phrase “Market Building.” I think the only topic about which I’ve written more in that time is Countryside, 107 stories. (For some perspective though I searched my predecessor Todd Jackson and “Victory Stadium” — 303 stories.)
One of my stories on the Market Building from three years ago predicts what’s now occurring in downtown. Here’s the first few grafs from that piece:
Downtown Roanoke’s heart will undergo intensive surgery for much of the next two years, and it’s unclear whether the vendors who rely on it for their livelihoods will survive.
In January, Church Avenue will become a two-way street between Williamson Road and Jefferson Street, just in time for the Market Garage to reopen from two years of renovations in March.
The Roanoke City Market Building will close down July 1 and remain closed for renovations for the next year to 18 months. The city promised vendors access to its economic development staff to find a new space, but has offered no guarantee or funding to help fill the gap.
During this same period, Center in the Square also will undergo extensive renovations that will result in some sidewalk closings and the relocation of a number of farmers market vendors.
We’re in the midst of that now, and as we reported in today’s story, food vendors in the Market Building are feeling the pinch. Food writer Lindsey Nair has a thread about the Market Building and that story over at her Fridge Magnet blog.
One key thing we didn’t anticipate in that 2009 story was the role of the Market Building Foundation. Essentially, the city had to transfer the building in order to get the historic tax credits — which helped make the renovation project work financially — and so granted a 40-year lease to the non-profit Market Building Foundation.
The foundation is overseen by a seven-member board, which sets broad policy (such as operating hours and what happens with those kiosks in the middle of the food court), and the building is then managed on a day-to-day basis by Hall Associates. The board was set up so that the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Authority, Downtown Roanoke Inc. and city government all appointed representatives to the board. Those representatives then selected two at-large members.
Currently there’s a vacancy on the board. The term of Phil Davis, the Hotel Roanoke’s rep, ended and the Hotel then selected former Mayor Nelson Harris while at the same time requesting to be relieved of making such an appointment. As it turns out, Harris teaches a class at Virginia Western Community College that meets at the same time as the board meetings, so he stepped down. The board decided to make the Hotel Roanoke seat a third at-large position, and so far it remains unfilled.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the building vendors asked whether that position could be filled by a representative of the vendors. After all, none of the board members are involved in running restaurants. But as yet it’s unclear who will take that seat.
One running conflict between the board and the vendors is the question of operating hours. Since the foundation was established, it appears that one of its missions has been to expand the Market Building from its former role as a lunchtime hub to become more of a draw that’s open into the evening. Vendors, however, would prefer to set their own hours based on what works best for them. Board chairman Doug Waters told me they’re still “wrestling” with that question, presumably stretched between continuing to try and attract people beyond lunch hours and giving the vendors what they want to succeed financially in the short run.
As always, we’re interested in your thoughts. Is this a short-term issue that will get better once renovations at Center in the Square are completed and that building re-opens? Does the Market Building need mere tweaking to succeed, or are there larger issues inherent in the way it was set up? Have you visited the building since it reopened a year ago? If so, what did you think? Do have recommendations on a favorite vendor or dish?
– Mason Adams