In the food desert on the outskirts of Downtown, an oasis is poised to become a little more attractive.
Non-uniform, makeshift tarps will make way for permanent metal awnings to shield sun-sensitive produce.
Sidewalks will be expanded to accommodate more people, especially on those busy weekends when people are looking for the deals of the season.
A public address system will be installed, improving security and ambiance.
It’s all part of a $560,000 project soon to be undertaken by the Jacksonville Farmers Market. The Beaver Street market is in its 77th year and is home to 30 permanent vendors with about a dozen others taking part on those crowded weekends.
Overall, the market attracts up to 20,000 people a week in search of fresh fruits and vegetables.
People like Vernon Norman who said he’s come to the market “forever” to buy veggies such as cucumbers, tomatoes, celery and collard greens. He stopped by Monday to pick up a few things from Sam’s Produce, whose owner Sam So has been with the market nearly 15 years.
The project will be a benefit to both of them and many more, said Jeff Edwards, chief financial officer for Beaver Street Fisheries, which owns the market.
So said vendors purchase their own tarps to block the sun, which can zap the shelf-life of sensitive produce like eggplants.
The north-south market hubs allow direct sunlight two times a day, meaning So arranges his stand in a way to combat that — onions and thick-skinned produce like pumpkins go on the edges. Those eggplants, limes and other foods have to be kept shaded.
“It should help a lot,” So said of the permanent awnings.
Larry Hall has been a market vendor for almost 30 years and has gone through several awnings already this year that have been damaged by the wind. He welcomes the improvements.
“They’ve wanted it bad,” said Edwards.
Of the $560,000 project cost, Beaver Street Fisheries is contributing $410,000. The other $150,000 would come from the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Trust Fund.
City Council is scheduled tonight to vote on the expenditure.
It will be council member Garrett Dennis’ first funding bill since he was elected last year. And it’s an important first, he said.
He knows the area is a food desert and the Farmers Market can be a “key piece of the puzzle” to improving the Beaver Street corridor — a gateway to Downtown in need of improvement.
Additionally, the market serves as a small business incubator, Dennis said.
His co-sponsor, Matt Schellenberg, has a long working relationship with the Frisch family, which owns Beaver Street Fisheries.
Schellenberg also sees the value of the market to the area and what improvements like this could mean.
“I think it’s a great addition to the area and they’ve been there for years,” he said. “Sometimes, all you need is a little spark to redevelop the area.”
Dennis hopes so, too, and said the Northwest fund is a place the city needs to start tapping into to boost the area. For businesses with a solid track record like the Farmers Market, he said it’s a way to show city commitment.
The fund will have about $4.4 million remaining after the Farmers Market expenditure.
Edwards said the city has been supportive and cooperative in the deal, much like almost a decade ago when the market was rebuilt. Back then, the company received $500,000 toward the rebuild.
This project isn’t nearly as expansive. But it’s one that should have real benefits for the customers and vendors, he said.
The hope is for completion by late summer, plenty of time before a national contingent of produce market managers visits the spot as part of a meeting in October.