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Experts say location is critical as La Crosse considers feasibility of public market

Experts say location is critical as La Crosse considers feasibility of public market


The old maxim of “location, location, location” holds true when it comes to the success of public markets, according to a pair of consultants hired by the city of La Crosse to determine the feasibility of a new development.

Public market experts Aaron Zaretsky and Mark Ernst hosted an informational session Thursday morning to discuss what a public market is — and isn’t — as well as what it takes to make a public market feasible for a community.

In Zaretsky’s experience — he ran the Pike Place Public Market in Seattle for 15 years and has worked on 50 projects over the past 35 to 40 years — public markets are an attraction, a social interaction, more than just a place to shop.

“They tend to be a common ground. They tend to be a place that often does not exist in most cities that brings together people of different races, different economic groups, gay/straight, young/old, a whole diverse group of people in an exciting and fun and safe environment where people can kind of mix it up,” Zaretsky said.

La Crosse has festivals such as Oktoberfest and Riverfest that offer those experiences, as well as farmers markets like the one in Cameron Park on Fridays during the summer, but it does not have one that is year-round and indoors.

Public markets reflect what’s unique about a particular region, he said, including fresh foods, restaurants, crafts and neighborhood businesses.

“They’re very different than farmers markets. Both farmers and markets focus on fresh foods, but farmers markets are local foods grown by the farmers,” Zaretsky said.

Public markets are open six or seven days each week and year-round, rather than just during the growing season, and are geared to have a mix of affordable and high-end products, beyond food, so everyone can shop there. With the low cost of entry, it also serves as a great place for small businesses to start.

“Public markets create opportunities for people who outside of the mainstream economy to be able to start their own businesses and grow their own businesses,” Zaretsky said.

While there’s no guarantee of success, Zaretsky said, a number of large chains got started in public markets, such as Starbucks Coffee, which got its start at the Pike Place market.

Ernst, who is working with Zaretsky to determine the feasibility of a market in La Crosse, said public markets can be a boon to a city’s economy, attracting new customers and encouraging residential development.

“I think it can help the businesses downtown, rather than hurt, but I think the location is going to be important,” Ernst said.

Ernst used the public market in Milwaukee as an example, saying its success has prompted the construction of additional housing, which then gives the market more customers.

“If people live there, they’re going to shop at the market,” Ernst said.

They also said public markets tend to be great attractions for tourists, although tourists shouldn’t be the main focus of the development.

“The way to attract tourists is to ignore them, to really focus on creating a real sense of locality, a real sense of ‘this is a special place that represents the best in our community,’ that really is distinctive and fun and exciting. And tourists will come in droves,” Zaretsky said.

Zaretsky and Ernst said while public markets can be extremely successful, they have seen a couple that failed, including one in Portland, Maine, which had a bad location and was too homogeneous in its offerings, and another in Hartford, Conn., which was too small for its community.

They also said public markets require a significant upfront capital investment and can take years to get up and running; however, once they are fully leased, those leases cover operating costs.

In Zaretsky’s experience, the markets are more successful when the city retains ownership of the actual property, but a nonprofit entity made up of representatives from the city, community and other stakeholders runs the facility and hires an executive director for the day-to-day operations. Markets that tend to be run directly by cities tend to be a disaster and markets run by a for-profit entity also tend not to be as successful, Zaretsky said.

The feasibility study, which cost about $130,000 and was funded with a mix of uncommitted economic development bond funds, as well as contributions from Mayo Clinic Health System, Gundersen Health System and the community development block grant program, was commissioned by the La Crosse Redevelopment Authority in February.

“From my perspective, we want it to function for everybody,” said RDA chairman Adam Hatfield, including people of different economic levels and cultural backgrounds, as well as existing businesses.

La Crosse economic development planner Andrea Schnick is showing the consultants several potential sites, from Riverside North to vacant lots adjacent to downtown to sites primed for redevelopment like the former Kmart. She’s hoping people will suggest even more sites as they look at whether a public market makes sense for La Crosse.

“The idea of even looking at this really came from our community, so I appreciate everyone’s input and would appreciate continuing that throughout the process,” Schnick said.

Contact Schnick at 608-789-8321 or For more information on public markets, visit Zaretsky’s website,

Jourdan Vian can be reached at or follow her on Twitter at @Jourdan_LCT.


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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering crime and courts for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218 or

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