Downtown’s Business Incubator Turns Forty

Close your eyes and imagine a different downtown Eugene.

You cannot count the number of boutiques and owner-operated shops, because counting might distract you and then you might miss something. Smiling people dance when walking would probably do. Live music fills the air. A dozen restaurants cluster together and each turns a tidy profit. They’d each have a line out the door, if they had a door. Thousands of people from miles around mill about, spending money, watching other people, meeting friends, having fun.

Imagine what it’s like when downtown is a bustling, successful place. Hundreds of families put food on their tables while pursuing their passions. This downtown Eugene is unique, but also sustainable. Children grow up here and expect they can stay and support their own family, when that time comes. Because it’s not only vibrant and healthy. It’s been vibrant and healthy for forty years. Nobody can remember it being anything but.

Now open your eyes. It’s Saturday.

This weekend forty years ago, Saturday Market launched in Eugene. How much around us has changed since May 9, 1970? Not everything. Sears and Penney’s have left, but downtown’s once-a-week anchor has remained.

I could fill the next three paragraphs with cumulative statistics. Thousands of vendors having made and sold millions of items. Businesses begun. Romances found. Lives changed. But really, our Saturday Market has always been less about the movement and more about the moment.

Why did one fellow disassemble his daughter’s swing set, weld its pieces together to form a bike trailer, and begin selling the trailers at Saturday Market? It seemed like a good idea at the time. That good idea grew into Burley Bicycle Cooperative and then later Bike Friday, and there are dozens scores hundreds of stories just like that one.

Somebody’s collecting those stories, but nobody can ever know how many people attempt to describe to disbelieving friends something they saw on the Park Blocks in faraway Eugene, where downtown jukes and jaunts like no other place they’ve ever seen. Those stories are flung to the corners of the world now and there’s no getting them back.

On Sunday, Eugene’s Marketeers will gather to celebrate the beginning of their fifth decade together. For once in their collective lives, they won’t be selling anything. They’ll just be having fun together and celebrating Eugene’s best success story since buying Spencer’s Butte from a goat farmer.

You’re invited to the party.

Sunday is also Mother’s Day, so now is a good time to think about how to make this good fortune not our mistress, but our missus. It’s been forty years. Can Eugene and the Market settle down and have children? No, skip the “settle down” part.

We’ve been creative. Now let’s be procreative.

Let’s get serious about how to spawn this success beyond the Park Blocks and into the work week. Cities invest millions in business incubators so entrepreneurs can develop their concepts. Saturday Market is our incubator.

Several Saturday Market booths have taken the leap into storefront businesses, but it’s a huge leap. More have failed than succeeded. Market merchants have tried banding together, but co-ops are hard work. Fifth Street Public Market in its chicken-wire days offered booth space out of the rain. The Atrium was originally a marketplace of small businesses.

Portland’s Saturday Market added to its edge carnival-style spaces, unadorned concrete, rentable by the day. They call them “roll-ups” because the door rolls up, you spread out your wares, and you’re open for business.

We’re working hard to fill some, um, holes in downtown. Let’s be sure to include someplace a row of small spaces, where a Saturday Market vendor can try selling on other days without high overhead or long-term commitment.

Bringing that Saturday spirit into downtown on the weekdays will grow Eugene into the place we all imagine it can be. Because it already is, one day each week.

“Prosperity and fun for everyone!” If you wander between the booths being erected early any Saturday, you’ll hear this chanted as the battle cry against the cold or rain or fatigue that would dampen lesser spirits. Can it be said any better?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) marvels at Dick Cross’s original wooden booth design as an engineering wonder. Saturday Market’s 40th Anniversary Celebration is Sunday, May 9 at the Park Blocks, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.