$20M overhaul for City Market?: Culinary school may replace east wing

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City Market officials are trying to pull together an ambitious plan to transform the century-old downtown lunch spot into a virtual paradise for foodies, complete with an Ivy Tech culinary school campus.

But they still have a couple of big hurdles to clear before giving the green light to the nearly $20 million project.

Plans include razing the east wing and replacing it with a five-story, $18 million building that could house Ivy Tech State College’s culinary programs. A separate building that would house an 8,000-square-foot fine-dining restaurant, with rooftop seating, is also on the chalkboard.

While they likely won’t break ground on the new buildings for at least three years, they’re planning to start a massive, $1.8 million renovation of the historic main building in December.

And the result won’t be just cosmetic. Roughly 90 percent of the building’s sales are cooked foods. Officials hope to lower that to about 40 percent by remaking the building as more of a traditional city mar- ket, complete with a farmer’s cooperative selling fresh meats, cheeses and veggies similar to Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

“What we’re trying to create is a culinary destination,” said Nikki Longworth, executive director of Indianapolis City Market Corp., the not-for-profit that manages the city-owned building.

Longworth, who’s led the market for five years, is not the only voice for change. The organization’s board includes heavyweights such as Baker & Daniels Managing Partner Brian Burke and former Deputy Mayor Jane Henegar.

Neighbors and development folks are thrilled.

Tenants, however, are grumbling. They say the market changes directions more often than a slalom skier, and the plan sounds like something Don Quixote would cook up.

The latest plan greatly expands a renovation project market officials have been working on for more than a year. Under the latest version, vendors in the main building will have to temporarily move to other parts of the market, a move many fear will lead to lost business.

“There are a lot of things up in the air,” said Jeff Gahimer, who owns the market’s Barking Dog Café with his wife, Mary Beth. “Originally, they were going to do the renovation in quadrants. Now, [they’re] going to close the entire building down for three or four months. From my background [in construction], that’s going to end up being five months, going into six, depending on how many problems they run into.”

Perhaps most important, market officials have raised only $750,000 toward the $1.8 million they need for the renovation of the main building, and they have a balance sheet with nearly $250,000 in debt.

And while the market would love to sign Ivy Tech’s culinary school to a long-term lease in the new “Culinary Arts and Enterprise” building, Ivy Tech isn’t anywhere near signing on the dotted line.

“We’re very excited about the potential opportunity to maybe be housed there, but the fact is, it hasn’t been built yet,” said Kelly Lucas, the school’s director of marketing and communications. “There’s a lot of work to be done on our end [before we sign a lease].”

To date, City Market officials haven’t raised a nickel of the $18 million for the new building and they don’t know where they’ll look for the cash. They might use public money. They might seek private donations. They might ask Ivy Tech to pay for a chunk of the construction.

“We’re in the stage of figuring out how to pay for it,” Longworth said.

It’s also unknown whether the recent announcement from Indiana Business College that it will spend $3.7 million to renovate a building near its campus at 644 E. Washington St. and add a culinary program will deter Ivy Tech from moving downtown.

At the least, there’s a huge demand for culinary training as the vibrant downtown restaurant scene continues scooping up graduates. Ivy Tech’s hospitality program has grown from 120 students in 1996 to more than 450 this year, Lucas said.

Reaction divided

Economic development officials say adding a culinary school, restaurant and more grocery stands will pump up foot traffic at night and on Saturdays and Sundays. The additional sneakers on the pavement should benefit other nearby retailers and make the area more vibrant.

“Adding more things in the evening and on the weekend in that quadrant will be a benefit to us all,” said Susan Vogt, deputy director for the Riley Area Development Corp., a community development organization in the nearby Mass Ave cultural district.

Tenants, however, say they’re getting the short end of the organic banana.

IBJ spoke with a half-dozen of them. All except Gahimer requested anonymity, saying they feared reprisals in lease renegotiations.

Indianapolis isn’t Seattle, they said. The market has tried to attract grocers and produce stands in the past, but it hasn’t worked. Both C. Montgomery’s and La Cucina Italian Market have closed in the past few years.

“It would be great to have fruits and vegetables and meats and take [City Market] back to like it was in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, but unfortunately the world outside isn’t in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s anymore,” Gahimer said. “There weren’t Super Wal-Marts back then. There weren’t Super Targets. There weren’t giant Marsh stores. You went and you bought [meat and produce] daily.”

Yet Longworth believes Hoosiers will warm to the idea of buying a few ears of corn and some fresh flowers after downing some chicken and dumplings at lunch.

“We believe the research … bears out that the community wants City Market to be a traditional public market,” she said.

Not to mention, the area is adding a slew of downtown residences. The proposed One Market Square project alone could put 256 condos less than a block from the market’s front door. The new urbanites need grocery options, and the only other one within walking distance is the O’Malia Food Market in Lockerbie Square.

A consultant who’s working with the market is confident shoppers will be game to stop by to scoop up some fresh bread and watermelon from Indianapolis bakers and farmers. And while they’re there, he said, they’ll pump cash into the tills of the people selling coffee and sandwiches nearby.

“The biggest problem [at the City Market] today is sales are limited to just one or two hours [during lunch],” said Hugh Boyd, whose Montclair, N.J.-based Hugh A. Boyd Architects has worked on numerous food markets, including the market in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. “So it’s hard to have viable vendors there.”

The business model exists in reverse in grocery stores that have added lunch counters in order to get people into the store to buy milk and eggs during the traditionally slow lunch hour, he said.

But tenants raised other concerns.

The biggest: survival.

The plan to renovate the Market’s historic main building began as a $350,000 project to improve the lighting and floors.

“It’s an excellent idea,” agreed Jeff Gahimer and other vendors.

The project has now been expanded to a $1.8 million face-lift. The lighting and flooring will still be upgraded, but so will the electrical and plumbing systems, among other renovations.

“It evolved into a more comprehensive renovation to accommodate the addition of fresh foods,” Longworth said.

It could definitely use it. The building went up in 1886 and hasn’t been renovated since 1977. But the scope is now so large that all the tenants in the main building will be temporarily moved to the west or east wing, starting in December.

Vendors fear the construction will give people the impression they’ve packed up their microwaves and ice cream scoops and gone away. They also objected to having to shoulder some of the construction costs. After the renovations are complete, they’ll have to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 to rebuild their stands in the main building. And the hodgepodge of designs will disappear, replaced by the food-court equivalent of a master-planned bedroom community with a consistent look and décor.

Market officials know the renovation is going to be a big hassle. But they urge vendors to see the bigger picture: Sales will increase.

Officials are also cutting rents, which average $25 per square foot, in half for the duration of construction. And they’re trying to scrape together a fund to subsidize the cost of rebuilding stands.

Tenants aren’t the only people who need to come up with some cash. How do officials plan to raise the more than $1 million they need to finish the renovation given that they only receive about $350,000 annually from the city?

By asking very nicely. They plan to approach the private sector, grant-makers and charities in the near future.

“We think the public will respond,” Longworth said. “We’ve had so much response for a return to a more traditional public market.”

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