As visionaries clamor for a central anchor, and something to connect downtown to America the Beautiful Park, Ranch Foods Direct owner Mike Callicrate has been quietly plotting to construct a public market in southwest downtown.
The idea is still just that — an idea, Callicrate said. But he thinks it’s a good one.
The market he imagines would sell locally-grown produce and locally-raised meats year-round. There would be hand-crafted cheeses, locally roasted coffees, maybe even some hometown brews and other area-produced foods and goods.
There might even be a restaurant.
It would bring much-needed vitality to a desolate corner of southwest downtown Colorado Springs, Callicrate said.
He’s been working with Chris Jenkins, president of Nor’Wood Development Group, which owns the property Callicrate hopes will house the market. It’s the former home of Crissy Fowler Lumber at the corner of Vermijo Avenue and Sahwatch Street. Callicrate said he thinks he can reuse the existing buildings there to create a market.
Jenkins says he’s not ready to discuss the project and thinks it’s premature to present the idea to the public.
Callicrate, on the other hand, wants to know if the public is behind the idea.
“When I talk to people about this, they embrace it,” he said. “But I don’t talk to the people who are opposed to it. I don’t know those people.”
To be viable, the project must be publicly owned, the only way to keep vendor spaces affordable, Callicrate says. That means the city or an entity like the Downtown Development Authority would have to make an investment. It also means the public will have to support the endeavor.
And he said the city will need to create downtown development policy that gives local businesses an advantage over discount chains.
If the city owns the market, Callicrate imagines a nonprofit organization like the Pikes Peak Community Foundation operating it.
Eric Cefus, director of new business for PPCF, says he has been talking to Callicrate about the project and the foundation is on board with getting a community dialogue started.
“We have to hear from the community that it would be supported,” he said. “It’s something that would need to be at least cash-flow neutral, if not positive.”
Cefus says he could see the Downtown Development Authority taking the lead on the project.
Susan Edmondson, DDA president, says she’s heard rumblings about Callicrate’s project and she’s intrigued by it, but hasn’t heard a presentation yet.
Ron Butlin, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said the DDA could help, but wouldn’t likely be able to own the project.
The authority generates about $800,000 a year from a mill levy on downtown business and homeowners and has about $1 million in reserves. It also gets tax incremental financing, but with property values being low, there hasn’t been any of that.
“It’s not a lot of money for big real estate investments,” Butlin said. “But the DDA is really looking to make catalytic investments and if they see private investment of three or four times what they put in, they could help.”
He said the authority helped the Cottonwood Center for the Arts buy its building on East Colorado Avenue to keep the organization downtown.
He said a downtown market could be considered a catalytic investment. It could serve as a grocery for potential residential development as well as a draw for tourists and visitors.
“I know the fish market in Seattle is an event,” Butlin said.
The trick to making a market like this work will be to learn from other communities, Cefus said.
“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We know there are successful public markets in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Tallahassee. There are examples outside this region we can look to.”
Callicrate would like to model the market after Milwaukee’s. He says Milwaukee’s Third Ward is legend in downtown renaissance and redevelopment circles, and the market has helped.
It took 10 years and $10 million to get the market off the ground, said Paul Schwartz, operations and communications manager for Milwaukee Public Market. But he said Colorado Springs could probably do it faster and maybe cheaper now that there are more models for inspiration and is on track to attract one million visitors next year.
The Third Ward, a former shipping, manufacturing and trade hub, was blighted for a half-century but now is an exciting place to live, work and play, Schwartz said. The ward has 1,500 condo units, a riverwalk and large park. The public market opened in 2005. Callicrate estimates it would cost $4 million.
“That happened all throughout the last 10 years,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said many people were involved in raising money, with about 60 percent coming from private donations. The key is to build the right market for the area, Schwartz said. It can’t be too high-end or too big, because common-area maintenance fees will be too high for vendors.
“You have to make sure you maintain costs,” he said. “And the main thing is to know your area and know what you’re going to sell the public. Don’t try to force products on people.”
Callicrate, who organically raises cattle in Kansas and processes the meat in Colorado Springs, has had this idea for ages. But something about the momentum behind downtown redevelopment efforts and a national refocusing on local and whole foods gives him hope that now is the time to act.
Chuck Murphy, who owns Murphy Constructors and leads Mayor Steve Bach’s downtown solutions team, agrees that the timing is right.
“The attitude and the temperament are totally different than they were in the past,” Murphy said. “I’m optimistic. I mean, I’m a developer and I have to be optimistic, but I think we’re all more optimistic than usual.”
Murphy owns a swath of land not far from the proposed site and plans to build an arts district complete with artist studios, retail development and loft living.
Redeveloping the area around America the Beautiful Park will be key in revitalizing downtown, Callicrate said.
“We need a bridge over those railroad tracks,” he said. “But you cross the bridge and where do you go? You don’t want to go from a park over a beautiful bridge to zombieville. We’ve got to fix that.”