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[caption id="attachment_24374" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Oxbow Public Market (photo by Ajelika Deo)"][/caption]

NAPA -- Community markets, public markets, farmers markets -- whatever the terminology may be, they are vital assets to a community and have the ability to revitalize entire regions by bringing in a diverse array of tenants while promoting commerce, competition and creativity.

Such is the view of Oxbow Public Market founder Steve Carlin, who detailed the virtues, challenges and economic benefits of local markets to a crowd of about 300 at the Business Journal’s Impact Napa conference Aug. 18.

[caption id="attachment_23317" align="alignright" width="122" caption="Steve Carlin"][/caption]

Founded just two and a half years ago, the Oxbow Public Market in the city of Napa is but one example of how a market offering a diverse display of local, artisan products can redefine a city while maintaining a unique identity, Mr. Carlin said.

“Markets are the center of every community,” he said, pointing to world-famous examples in Cairo, Barcelona, Seattle and San Francisco’s Ferry Building, which he also helped found before embarking on a similar concept in Napa. “This, to me, represents something even more significant. Why put a market together? Why are these important? Markets bring diverse people together, they promote sustainability and, of course, they create jobs.”

The Oxbow market has created nearly 250 jobs that were previously non-existent, Mr. Carlin said, noting that markets such as Oxbow can generate more than $1,000 per square foot in sales. Compare that to the best supermarkets in the world, which generate between $600 and $900, he said. Or to shopping centers, which fall somewhere in the range of $500 to $600, according to Mr. Carlin.

“They also, of course, serve a vital function of revitalizing downtown areas, and we really do believe that Oxbow is in the process of participating in that.”

Yet while such markets that feature local and artisanal food provide economic and social benefits for both the community and the tenants, which might otherwise remain unnoticed, they are not easy to conceive of or see through to fruition. 

“They are challenging because many of the types of tenants we look for are not the ones that have good balance sheets, or they may not necessarily be the most experienced tenants,” Mr. Carlin said.

The tenants are, however, unique and offer something different and of high quality. As such, a landlord or financer should be flexible and creative in their approach to retaining them as tenants.

“Creative leasing approaches are what I specialize in,” Mr. Carlin said. “It’s what’s been necessary.”

That the tenants may not be mainstream is ultimately beneficial – and it is the point of a real community market.

“Every tenant that I want, every shopping center shies away from them. They are considered ‘nuanced’ tenants, and as a market is pieced together, that’s what makes it special,” Mr. Carlin said.

Important, too, is long-term vision.

“A market like this is not here for 10 years,” he said. “A market like this is here for our grandchildren and beyond.”

While only about 100 similar markets are in operation across the U.S., Mr. Carlin said he thinks they can – and should – be a model for shopping habits, sustainability and eco-conscious practices, while serving as economic drivers for entrepreneurial-minded food businesses.

“A market, while the raw ingredients are important, what really makes a market work is the food service and the community gathering place,” Mr. Carlin said

Oxbow, with 21 tenants that average about 900 square feet, had more than 500,000 transactions last year, a figure Mr. Carlin said is impressive but probably a conservative estimate on the amount of people entering the market. 

Mr. Carlin is also part of an effort to open a similar market at Jack London Square in Oakland.

“It’s important that while markets have been diminished over the course of the last several years, there is a trend to restore these markets,” he said.

To hear his talk, visit the Business Journal's Resources page for events online materials.