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City’s plan for Strip flummoxes vendors | TribLIVE.com
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City’s plan for Strip flummoxes vendors

Tom Fontaine
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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
New marquees help draw attention to the new location of the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District. Photo from Aug. 20, 2014.
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Foo Conner, 29, of the North Side, left, takes a photo of himself with (from left to right) Marta Napoleone, 32, of Crafton, Fauna Solomon, 32, of the North Side, Brian Conway, 29, of South Side, and Jessica Thompson, 30, of the South Side at Yelp's 'Burgh Bash at the Pittsburgh Public Market on Thursday evening, Sept. 18, 2014.
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Former Pittsburgh Steeler and artist Baron Batch paints at the Pittsburgh Public Market on Thursday evening, Sept. 18, 2014.

A city-backed proposal to put a public market in the Strip District’s historic Produce Terminal frustrates some vendors of the Pittsburgh Public Market who were forced out of the terminal a year ago and are trying to grow their businesses in their new home a few blocks away.

“I think it’s a little bit silly to invest in another public market. Why start over with something brand new when we already have this?” asked Eric Earnest, owner of Ohio City Pasta, one of 18 vendors in the new location at 24th Street and Penn Avenue. More than 30 vendors sometimes filled the previous spot.

Moving the market cost at least $1.3 million. That included a $770,000 grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, $470,000 from the city’s URA and state and county money.

“URA should back what they started, not create more competition for the market. There are so many potential other uses for the terminal,” said Debbie Jacknin, co-owner of Jenn’s Jems, another vendor at the spot that after a year is just 30 percent filled.

Pittsburgh Public Market was in the URA-owned Produce Terminal from 2010 to 2013. It closed last September and reopened a month later at 24th and Penn because the Strip’s Buncher Co. planned to redevelop the terminal. The URA later scrapped those plans.

Mayor Bill Peduto, who took office in January, opposed Buncher’s plan. The URA board, with Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin as chair, voted last week to negotiate with two other developers.

A $19.4 million proposal from a “potential minority developer” led by local businessman Mike Rubino includes space for a 33,000-square-foot public market, along with other retail and restaurants. The present market is in a 27,000-square-foot building, with rental rates starting at $517 a month for a 10-by-10-foot space. The cinder block structure lacks the historic character of the market’s former home.

Neither Acklin nor Rubino returned messages. Last week, Acklin said the “mayor’s vision (would) preserve a portion of the building for incubation space and a public marketplace.”

Chicago-based McCaffery Interests Inc., the URA’s preferred “lead developer,” plans to meet with Rubino for the first time next week, senior project manager Pamela Austin said.

She said a public market wasn’t in McCaffery’s $46.4 million plan for the terminal, based largely around residential development. “We need to learn more” from Rubino, she said.

Although some vendors are concerned about the development plans at their old locations, boosting foot traffic where they are now is an immediate priority.

“I didn’t even know they had moved here until three months ago, but I’ve been here several times since. It’s nice,” said customer Tim Tobitsch, 33, owner of Lawrenceville gourmet hot dog shop Franktuary, who comes primarily for one hard-to-find item: gluten-free poundcake.

The market is slowly attracting more vendors and boosting its customer base and visibility, say vendors and market manager Terry Doloughty, who started on Sept. 6. New, lighted corner marquees heighten the visibility of the nondescript building several blocks from the Strip’s traditional core.

“Not enough people know about us still, but once they find our location, they absolutely fall in love with it,” Jacknin said.

In addition to the marquees, a 20-foot-tall wind-power generation tower on the building’s roof and promotional events are helping attract more people, Doloughty said. Colorful awnings will go up soon.

An event by Yelp Pittsburgh on Thursday drew more than 600 people to the market. About 2,100 people visit on a busy Saturday, compared with 200 on a “rainy Wednesday,” Doloughty said.

Some think the new market lacks the gritty charm of some of the city’s past markets, which are remembered nearly as much for their old buildings and sawdust-covered floors as their vendors’ offerings.

“It doesn’t have the aesthetics that many people who go to that kind of a market are looking for,” said Heather Cramer, owner of Olive & Marlowe in East Liberty, who moved out of the market last spring after another olive oil vendor moved in and hurt her business.

Cramer said she submitted a proposal to Rubino’s group to move into his proposed market.

Doloughty said, “I remember (years ago) when you’d go into Wholey’s and see sawdust on the floor. There’s a certain charm to that. But I want people to know that we care about the place when they walk in.

“Neat and clean goes a long way.”

Not every vendor at the current public market is opposed to another one opening in the terminal.

“I’m not worried about competition. Our job is to do what we can here. If another business does something similar, I think it only creates better awareness of what the businesses are offering,” said Trenton Oczypok, owner of Organically Social, which sells health and related products.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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