After years of delays, construction will begin soon on a public food market in downtown Boston that will become a showcase for New England foods and allow consumers to buy directly from local farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and wine makers.
Executives with the nonprofit organization behind the market said some vendors will begin selling products in an outdoor plaza along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway this spring. Meanwhile, construction will proceed next door on a facility scheduled to open in early 2015.
“This market will allow us to show off the best of what our small farms and agricultural producers have to offer,” said Governor Deval Patrick, whose administration has committed $4 million to help with the facility’s construction. “There are a lot of wonderful things grown and made in Massachusetts that people ought to know about.”
The portion of the market to open this spring will have space for 13 to 15 vendors selling fresh produce, flowers, specialty foods, and other items. Those vendors will be moving from City Hall Plaza and operate two days a week at 136 Blackstone St.
“I’m confident that the idea of this market is good enough and strong enough to move forward, and that it has the potential to really change Boston,” said Elizabeth Morningstar, chief executive of the nonprofit Boston Public Market.
Morningstar, a former political director for Patrick, said her organization still needs millions of dollars in donations to complete construction and open the facility. But she said the group has raised enough money — about $8 million in state and private funds so far — to begin renovating a 28,000 square foot space above the Haymarket subway station.
Once completed, the indoor market will host about 40 vendors selling a wide array of local products, including fish, cheese, meats, produce, flowers, and specialty items. It is designed to function like a daily farmer’s market. But vendors will also offer prepared foods and dry goods such as books, candles, and cooking utensils.
A draft layout also includes space for a demonstration kitchen, where chefs could host cooking classes, as well as a 3,000-square-foot restaurant facing the greenway. Executives with the market are beginning to look for restaurateurs interested in the space.
“We’d like to encourage a farm-to-table chef who could source right out of the market,” said Chris Douglass, a director of the market who also owns the Ashmont Grill and Tavolo restaurants in Dorchester. “We want to have space for people to actually take a break and sit down. Maybe they’re going shopping and they want to meet friends, eat, socialize and enjoy a craft beer.”
Plans for the market have been under development for more than a decade. Boston is one of only a few cities its size without a standing public market focused on locally grown foods.
Local-food advocate Andy Kendall said only 5 percent to 10 percent of the food consumed in New England is actually grown or produced in the region, a surprising fact given the region’s $2.4 billion agricultural economy.
“We want New England consumers, all 16 or so million of us, to benefit from more food grown in this region,” said Kendall, executive director of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation in Boston, a family foundation focused on improving access to fresh foods. “Leading scholars suggest that more than 50 percent of our food can come from this region.”
Kendall’s foundation has given $1 million to the market, one of several large donations that have helped to get the effort off the ground.
The project has been delayed due to the political and logistical complexities of renovating the state-owned building at the Haymarket MBTA stop. The building functions as a vent stack for the Interstate 93 tunnel, which means its renovations must be approved by state and federal transportation regulators.
Currently, the floor of the market is uneven and interrupted by massive concrete columns. The ceilings are covered in a maze of pipes and wires, and new water and electrical connections must be added to support vendors’ operations.
Despite the heavy workload, some farmers backing the market say they are encouraged by its recent progress.
“I’m more confident now than I was a few years ago,” said Glenn Stillman, owner of Stillman’s Farm in New Braintree. “I always figured it was an inevitability. But getting things done in Boston — everything starts with, ‘No,’ and, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
But Stillman said he believes that the current management can fight through the maze of red tape and political maneuvering to get the project done. He said it could significantly expand his access to consumers and restaurateurs who are increasingly interested in buying local foods.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it added 50 percent in sales,” Stillman said. “That wouldn’t happen right away. But it opens up all sorts of opportunities to network with other businesses and restaurants. Hopefully, restaurants and others will be able to come and get everything they need in one building.”
Casey Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.