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The Market area needs to change

But how to do it?
Warwick Jones

The market area needs to change, but how to do it? The City-organized charrette held on Friday evening allowed citizens and vendors to comment on what they would like to see at the City market area along Market Street.

The Post and Courier estimated that there were about 200 attendees. Our estimate would be closer to 300 with the majority being vendors.

Lengthy questionnaires for citizens and vendors
There were a number of publicly-displayed questionnaires on which the public could write directly. Others sheets could be completed privately and inserted in nearby boxes. Both sets of sheets invited participants to make comments beyond those elicited from the questions displayed.

Management contract up for renewal
The management agreement between the City and the Christopher Company expires at the end of this year. The City is calling interested parties to register for bidding on the management contract. But before it awards a contract, it is seeking the views of residents and vendors.

The market area lies in the center of Market Street between East Bay and Meeting Streets and is contained in 3 buildings. As most readers know, the sides of the buildings are open to the elements. Vendors rent space - sufficient for about 3 large tables - at $12 a day, and $17 a day on the weekend, according to the Post and Courier. Understandably, most items sold are small ticket and perhaps surprisingly, the most expensive products are the sweet-grass baskets which fetch well over $100.

Tourists are the major customers
The vendors make no secret of the fact that tourists are their major customers – by far. Perhaps a reflection of the nature of tourists now coming to Charleston, the merchandise is mainly trinkets, T shirts and souvenirs. And not much is locally made, let alone made in the US.

But locals thinks the area is tacky
Many residents of the Peninsula avoid the market area and think that the market as it is presently operated does little for the City. It may generate revenue. But the cheapness and mediocrity lower the tone and stature of the City. It is simply tacky. Tourists don’t come to Charleston to go to the market, they come to Charleston, and some go to the market just because it is there. Locals don’t go to the market because there is nothing there they want to buy.

The locals might say that we have a market area which is perhaps the longest established of any in the whole of the USA. It's capped at one end by a fine historic building. The whole area would lend itself to something much better than trinkets and souvenirs.

But can locals alone support the market area?
But would it? The consultant retained by the City gave a presentation and slide show showing the transformation of some market areas in other cities in the US in recent years. The changes for some indeed have been dramatic. But it is questionable, at least in this writer’s view, whether such changes can be effected in Charleston.

A number of factors work against change
The Peninsula does not have a large local population to support a market, 7 days a week, geared to locals. It does not have a nearby business district which draws tens of thousand of office workers a day – such as Quincy Market in Boston. Nor is it situated at a major transport terminal such as the Ferry Building in San Francisco. There is unlikely to be a significant surge in the number of residents able to patronize the market. There have been a number of condominium developments but their addition has been offset to some extent, by the increasing number of residents who spent only part of the year in the City. Perhaps more importantly, the density of traffic on the Peninsula at just about any time is frightening off visitors, and there is no serious public transport system that will deliver locals to the market.

Many local residents would like to see a “farmers’s market” on Market Street, and more locally produced goods. But could such a market be supported 7 days a week, even ignoring the fact that the City already has a Farmers Market on Saturday morning at Marion Square?

The market are used to cater to locals
Some residents say that the market area catered to residents some twenty or thirty years ago and wonder why it couldn't do so in future. But such a comparison is not fair. Tourists were much fewer in number in the distant past and their purchases in totality were modest. Today, tourists numbers are substantial. And some, if not many of the products once sold in the market area are readily available at other retail outlets.

A tourist orientation looks best for the market
Sadly, we suspect that a tourist orientation is the best for the City market. Maybe something can be done to improve its look, and the nature of merchandise. 

Your Comments:

We do have a quandry here. The Market provides little benefit to Downtown residents other than employment and recreation. The "market" aspect is wholly unappealling, as you point out, because the merchandise is generally mediocre. I don't know how to convince retailers to change their market-driven decisions on what to sell or in which price range, but I do wish the City would lighten up and allow the entertainment and food service aspects to shine a little brighter. Suggestions:

1. Make North and South Market pedestrian only. Resurface them (after raising them for proper drainage) so that they are obviously different than roadways for cars. If the merchants of Venice can supply themselves using handcarts, I'm sure Market vendors could too. (although I would concede limited service vehicle access)

2. Allow restaurants to set up patio dining on the sidewalks.

3. Allow non-amplified music. Charleston has many great bands well-suited for outdoor acoustic performance.

I have only lived in Charleston since 1994, but in all that time there were only a few years that my occupation was not immediately impacted by the Market and the tourists who visit there. It is a great community to be a part of, and truly needs very little changing. I hope the City takes to heart the concerns of those who work and play there, at least at a higher value than any "consultants" or "experts".

Posted by: Lee Roy Brandon III at August 1, 2007 06:51 PM

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