As it continues to rebuild from its global domination-to-decline automotive industry, the city of Detroit is harnessing a different but burgeoning growth sector: the fresh and processed food industry. More than just nourishment, food may well play a critical role in the city’s quest to diversify its economy.
Long recognized as the center of America’s industrial revolution Detroit’s focus on the food sector indicates its responsiveness to market demands coupled with an appreciation of its own inherent strengths.
Already an engrained part of the city is the iconic Eastern Market (EM), a working food hub always a historic treasure now an economic jewel. For 130 years the core of Eastern Market has served as a trading post for local farmers to wholesale their fresh produce, livestock and poultry at affordable prices. Over the years it has continued that tradition but with much greater elaboration.
Now sitting on 1,130-acres just one mile northeast of downtown, is the Eastern Market Development District a center for importing, processing and selling wholesale food. It is the largest market district in the US and on a warm Saturday (pre-Covid) attracts upwards of 40,000 destination patrons.
“It is both an economic engine for the city, as the premier center of the food industry in the Great Lakes region, and a singular cultural asset that brings Detroiters of all backgrounds together,” according to the Neighborhood Framework Plan developed by Detroit’s Planning and Development Department.
The EM’s contagious vitality has spawned many new businesses, nurtured some to greater success with others growing to become the largest in the district.
“We have businesses here that are over 100-years-old with multi-generational histories. Many span two to four generations,” says Catherine Frazier, associate director of real estate for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. XX
Consumers’ ravenous appetite for fresh, regional specialty foods and a new era of food regulations have triggered a growth spurt in the EM in recent years. The federal Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 had rendered many of the historic buildings unsafe for food handling and manufacturing.
Meanwhile, a growing wave of welcomed investment in Detroit is pressuring the District to defend its distinctiveness or suffer a slow death.
“It is real estate that could be demolished for more profit-oriented uses,” says Frazier.
She explains that at most other food and meat packing districts around the country, market pressures push the conversion to retail and office space since they garner higher returns than food production uses.
“Eastern Market is an attractive space with an exciting vibe and energy. But if we just let real estate pressures take over the likely outcome is that the food businesses would be redeveloped for other uses,” says Frazier.
But that outcome is unlikely she notes with the cogent acknowledgement by her department, the city, local community and businesses that the EM it is an important economic force that needs to be expanded while keeping its food central, historic authenticity. “We are very intentional on how we keep the Eastern Market functioning as a wholesale food market at the same time preserve its authenticity, look and feel,” says Frazier.
Already plans are underway.
The Eastern Market Partnership (EMP), a nonprofit organization that operates and manages the District, developed the Eastern Market 2025 Strategy, an expansion plan that calls for the redevelopment of the public market area, where the wholesaling takes place, and larger facilities for food makers and manufacturers to be built. Included in the plan is a vision for making the district more than just working food hub.
“The current market district will be transformed into a more robust mixed-use district with more retail, housing, and people,” according to the EMP plan. That includes taking advantage of the district’s unique location amidst hundreds of acres of vacant land; the vestiges of flight now rich soil for growth.
“By repurposing largely vacant urban land we can build larger spaces for more established food companies that are landlocked in the current district and want to stay in Detroit,” says Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Partnership.
“By combining that with aggressive storm management and greenways, we can build an urban environment that is actually conducive to living nearby, not as an industrial park, but a fully integrated, jobs-rich environment where people can walk to work.”
Immediate freeway access, close reach to export markets, and other logistical advantages are already in place further justifying the expansion and its promise.
Funding for the expansion will come from local, state, federal and private sources with more specifics being revealed as more projects come online.
At the crux of the entire project is the success of the businesses operating at the market, a paramount goal for EMP which is committed to assisting them with a variety of support programs in place. The market generates over $6 million a year, with about $2 million from the public market and the remaining $4 million from special events and corporate program services.
After building and owning bars and restaurants earlier in his career, Carmody can empathize with the type of assistance needed by the small businesses operating at the EM. Throughout the 14 years he has been president he and his team have developed several attentive programs geared specifically to foster success.
“Our goal as a nonprofit is to spur growth in the food sector and to nurture everybody but keep an eye on those companies that have growth potential. If organically we get one out of 100 it creates 50 jobs. If we can actually work the field and get three out of 100 that is a lot of jobs,” says Carmody.
EMP has developed a nonprofit development corporation to acquire long term leases to subdivide then sublease the spaces for below market prices. The intent is to buy buildings and do the same.
The first project is a 15,000 square foot property that EMP helped to developed and paid $2 million to buy prepaid rent for 20 years. “We were able to take donated capital to keep spaces affordable for food businesses who are trying to accelerate.”
The group is completing its second accelerator for companies that are growing and want to maintain their own production. This one will allow them to rent a 1,500 to 1,800 square foot production kitchen at reasonable rates for up to five years. “That helps us grow those food businesses and helps us fulfill the mission of keeping affordable space for food businesses in the market as part of our core values,” says Carmody.
Another program called Grow Eastern Market helps small businesses to graduate from selling at farmers markets to supplying wholesale chains or connecting them with the medium produce houses that are supplying restaurants and want signature local produce. This became part of an opportunity presented during Covid.
“We put small farmers’ products into a food box program that people could pick up and not have to come into human contact,” recalls Carmody. The boxes were sold at market prices to support local growers but connected people with the financial ability to buy it to healthy food.
After discovering that many mom-and-pop producers did not have easy access to licensed production space, EMP created a shared-use kitchen that has up to 12 participants at any given time. The space is rented by the hour for up to four hours. Two other accelerators have been built to scale for companies who have started in the shared kitchen.
Additionally, EMP opened a facility in 2017 that does co-packing. “We own the building and leased it to two companies that have their own products but are under contract to make product for as many as 13 to 15 companies at any one time,” notes Carmody.
Carmody points to four main areas where assistance is critical:
The growth and sustainability of Detroit’s EM is due in large part to EMP’s focused efforts on helping its businesses grow and succeed because that in itself has powerful impact.
“Food plays a part in Detroit’s transition to a more diversified economy,” says Carmody. “While Detroit’s economy over the last 100 years put America in cars, its economy over the next hundred years can help America build more sustainable and equitable cities where industry, agriculture, and commerce are intertwined forming new urban forms.”
For more information contact Charlotte Fisher: firstname.lastname@example.org