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Downtown Bustles When Many Aren’t Looking

April 19th, 2006 by dk

Anyone who moans that downtown Eugene doesn’t bristle and beam with retail energy is simply looking in the wrong place. Or, more likely, at the wrong time. Saturday Market is our trademark collective of artisans and entrepreneurs, the longest-running outdoor market on the west coast. Thousands enjoy the bustle every weekend and mark the seasons by the tone of the Park Blocks. It’s a must-see stop for any out-of-town visitors.

Eugene’s Market has resisted the pressure to add imported baubles and inexpensive, mass-produced trinkets to the merchandising mix. Unlike Portland’s Saturday Market, Eugene has kept the line firmly drawn: if you didn’t make it, you can’t sell it. Sandal shoppers might not find exactly what they are looking for, be if they leave a drawing of their foot and a deposit with a local leatherworker, they can return the following week to pick it up. Kids-in-tow looking for a 99-cent yo-yo will have to settle for a $14 yo-yo made from locally milled alder. Families looking for fast food will find instead food made fast.

Owner-operators in a state with no sales tax and a city with no business tax can hang out their shingle without much government intrusion. Craftspeople needn’t become sophisticated bookkeepers to satisfy the powers that be.

The charm and mystique of our vagabond retailers overlooks one simple detail: some of these businesspeople want to grow. They dream of something larger, something more substantial, something more rewarding, and, yes, something more permanent. Who can make the leap from once a week to everyday? Only the most ambitious of the 10,000 businesspeople who have set up shop on the park blocks some Saturday morning in the past 37 years.

Eugene is uniquely hospitable to the microbusiness. What the city could do better is help those owner-operators grow into full-time retailers. For every success story — Burley Design Cooperative started with one guy who welded his kids’ aging swing set into a bike trailer and sold it at Saturday Market — there are many who have tried to make the leap and failed. And for every ten of those, there are a hundred who haven’t been willing to risk it.

Do Eugene’s Saturday Marketeers want a chance to head indoors? If you ask them during a blustery autumn squall, only the liars will tell you no. But on a bright morning under a blue sky, most will insist there’s no place they’d rather be. Bringing them indoors won’t help them. Giving them a space they can use everyday will.

Most towns pour money into run-down neighborhoods to refashion the area into a business incubator, hoping that people with energy and ideas will be helped enough to build businesses for the local economy. We’ve had that sort of economic engine in the heart of downtown for over a generation. But too many of them compare their operations with full-time retail storefronts and sadly conclude “you can’t get there from here.”

If Tom Connor and Don Woolley want to show their Opus partners how unique a town this is, they’ll find a way to incorporate a row of 100-square-foot roll-up spaces that microbusinesses can rent by the day. If the pollsters working for the city want to make a new city hall palatable to voters and taxpayers, permanent Saturday-Market-sized booths rung around its perimeter at street level with retractable awnings will ensure that the city government’s building enlivens the street.

Nobody doesn’t like Saturday Market. The only changes contemplated are ways to expand it. A midweek Market springs up in the same location each summer on Tuesdays. Farmers are courted for other locations on other days. The impermanence of our street markets seems to be part of their charm. Once Monday rolls around, there’s hardly a trace of the life that teemed in the place 48 hours earlier.

That weekly disappearing trick prevents desk jockeys and government bureaucrats from seeing the solution to downtown’s problems. Creating permanent spaces for those who want to step up from once-a-week to everyday will help both those who have the imagination and those who don’t.

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