City Market plans raising concerns: Coming renovations worry some tenants

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Renovation plans for City Market intended to boost sales at the downtown landmark have some tenants concerned about what it will cost them.

In early January, the market’s management expects to begin work on $350,000 worth of lighting and flooring improvements in the historic main hall. Tenants will be permanently moved, with preparedfood stands along the perimeter of the building and retail stands in the center. And stands will sport a uniform look.

Individual tenants will bear most, if not all, the cost of moving their stands and making necessary improvements, which in some cases will require total reconstruction.

The goal is to highlight the building’s historic architecture, and make City Market more shopper-friendly and less of a hodgepodge of widely varying stands, said Nikki Longworth, executive director of Indianapolis City Market Corp., the not-for-profit organization that manages the cityowned building.

Few tenants disagree with that goal, but in an environment where most are barely scraping by on proceeds from a weekday lunchtime crowd, some worry they won’t survive the required financial investment or the downtime during construction.

Four tenants contacted by IBJ expressed uncertainty about the upcoming renovations, and one current tenant who requested anonymity said she wouldn’t have located her business in the market if she’d known about the changes beforehand. Most current tenants said they plan to stay at the market through the renovations if possible.

“It’s quite exciting to be moving forward,” said David Jarrett, owner of Dotty’s Deli and Prestige Catering. “It’s a little bit scary, to be making an investment. When you’re just making ends meet, that’s not what you want to hear. But we’re really looking forward to it. I just hope it goes as smoothly as they think it will.”

Jarrett said he’s estimated it might cost $10,000 to move and rebuild his two stalls, including some new equipment he plans to add by his own choice. The estimate, he said, is still “very rough” because it’s not clear what individual tenants will have to pay toward infrastructure improvements like electrical or plumbing or how much it will cost.

Four months before managers hope to start construction, other tenants complain they haven’t been given necessary information required to estimate how much they’ll need to spend to bring their stands into compliance with new design standards.

Lease negotiations that have taken place over the past year required tenants to agree to the new standards in anticipation of the coming renovations. Longworth said she expects “all but one or two” of the 15 leases affected to include those standards by the time construction starts at the first of the year.

It’s also unclear whether tenants will have to close entirely during construction or move to a temporary location within the market, and for how long.

Longworth and other market managers are in the process of meeting with architects to draw up bid documents, but until a contractor is hired, they hope in the coming weeks, exact time lines and costs won’t be known.

“We’re trying to minimize the impact on businesses here,” Longworth said. “We’re trying to do it so nobody has to close. Whether or not they’ll have to temporarily relocate will depend on the contractor.”

Market managers are also trying to offset the financial burden for tenants, possibly by working out deals with construction companies or obtaining volume discounts on materials.

“[Renovations] shouldn’t be a problem, but we’re praying for the best for this,” said CATH Inc. owner Mike Batarseh. “We’re hoping for good things to happen.”

The renovations come at a pivotal time for the market. Several businesses have closed in recent months, including longtime tenant City Market Seafood and Italian deli and market La Cucina. Periods of heavy tenant turnover are nothing unusual for the market, which has struggled to remain viable at various periods throughout its 119-year history.

One former stand manager said average daily sales declined 60 percent over the last seven years. Nora Spitznogle, who managed CATH Inc. until its sale early this year, was reluctant to blame market management, instead citing lower occupancy in nearby office buildings and the demolition of Market Square Arena as factors.

With the upcoming renovations and repositioning, management is being choosy with new leases it signs, Longworth said.

“It’s more important to get the right mix of tenants,” she said.

Since arriving at City Market in 2001, Longworth has been working on longterm plans to return the market to the vibrancy of its early-20th-century heyday, when downtown was the center of the city’s residential population.

Coming renovations will be some of the most tangible effects of that planning, which calls for City Market to be a foodoriented destination for eating, celebration and learning. The lighting and flooring will be paid for with a city historic preservation grant. Longworth also is working on funding to install a hood ventilation system under the main hall’s mezzanine for food stands, and hopes to get the market’s interior walls painted.

Those plans are the first phase of a three-tier “market renewal” plan. The renovations in the first phase will pave the way for phase two, which involves attracting more retail tenants-those who sell packaged food or produce, for instance.

The market is working with a group of farmers who frequent the popular Original Farmers’ Market to set up a cooperative that would occupy space in the retail portion of the main hall. There, fresh farm goods-including vegetables, meats, cheeses and preserves-would be sold year-round, Longworth said.

The market tried a similar concept a few years ago to generally positive customer response. This time around, Longworth said, the cooperative will be run by the farmers, not by market managers, which should make for smoother operation.

Phase three involves converting the market’s non-historic east wing into a culinary school, shared commercial kitchen, demonstration kitchen and other learning-focused food activities.

Further down the line, City Market will focus on the west wing of the building and Whistler Plaza, planned as the entertainment component of the market. Performances are now held throughout the summer on a stage built on the plaza with help from Market Square Partners, redeveloper of the Market Square Arena site. As part of its deal with the city to build condominium towers and retail on the arena site, the group pledged financial and in-kind support to help City Market thrive.

Last year, a group of City Market supporters formed the Historic Indianapolis City Market Foundation to raise money for the market. The group is gearing up for a pair of fund-raisers, the Gingerbread Village and Holiday Market this November and December and the Market to Market Ball next May.

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