Janet Kassel said her grass-fed beef sold as well in downtown Janesville on Saturday as it has any of the prior 15 years she has set up a booth at the Janesville Farmers Market.
That’s even though the farmers market has moved to the new ARISE Town Square along downtown Janesville’s riverfront. The new location is just southwest of the block of North Main Street where the market has run every year since it first started.
Kassel, who runs Amazing Grace Family farm in rural Janesville said she had gone into the new season with some trepidation, in part because of the change in location.
But by the end of a balmy, if windy, Saturday morning—the first day of the farmers market’s 2021 season, and the first time it has been held at the town square—Kassel and 55 other vendors had seen a crowd of between 4,000 and 5,000 meander the square.
“We fear change, I think. I know I never like change. But you can always get used to it,” Kassel said. “This, I think, I could get used to.”
Emily Arthur, the farmers market’s manager, said the foot traffic at the market in its new venue was as good, if not better, than any season opener she has seen.
It was a breath of fresh, spring air after a pandemic year in 2020 saw the market run in the red under self-imposed crowd control rules and limits to vendors.
Overall, the first day of the market on Saturday brought six more vendors than it did on the May opener in 2019, including some vendors brand new to the market, Arthur said.
More than one vendor reported they had completely sold out of items. That’s despite a power outage that hit downtown Janesville Saturday morning and caused a few logistical snafus for vendors who needed to plug into the town square’s power grid.
Mary Jo Minter, who runs Stoughton-based Flakey Jo’s Homemade Pastries, said she sold out of breads and cookies fast on Saturday. By late morning, she was manning a friend’s booth while he took a break.
Minter said she has sold at the Janesville Farmers Market for seven years. She said she was pleased with the new location at the town square.
Minter believes the market’s new home—a concourse that’s spread across the street-side and park spaces on either side of the Rock River and connected by a pedestrian bridge—is different than any other market she’s sold at.
She pointed to a cluster of families whose kids were frolicking beneath The Bubbler, a hybrid splash pad/public art installation on the town square’s west side.
“It’s very unique. Very unique, with the water fountain feature, all these different spaces, two sides of the market with a foot bridge connecting it all. It’s beautiful,” Minter said. “Just a lot of people I saw really were kind of in awe today to see how this all ties in for a market. They just had to see it first, I guess. I really think it’s going to bring people to this downtown who haven’t been here before.”
That’s a bright prognosis, and it comes after the city of Janesville had told the market late last year it would need to move from its longtime home on North Main Street to the new town square.
The square was completed and fully connected across the river with a new footbridge last fall.
City of Janesville officials had declined the market’s request to stay put along North Main Street this year, although the city agreed to give the market a break on some use fees for the town square.
The market’s move brought backlash from some North Main Street storefront operators who hoped to see the market stay in its former spot for at least one more year.
The city agreed to give the market a break this year on fees to make the move viable for a market that had scuffled financially last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Manager Mark Freitag told The Gazette the move to plug in the market as a Saturday user for 27 weeks a year will guarantee immediate public use of a town square park that cost taxpayers and private developers millions of dollars to develop.
Arthur said she spent time Saturday explaining to market goers where they could park downtown near to the stretch of River and Water streets that were closed to provide traffic-free space for vendors and the market.
Arthur said the city has anted up three parking spaces along the Court Street Bridge specifically for shoppers at the market who want to grab an item or two and quickly leave.
Yet, Arthur said she saw many at the market who weren’t in a hurry to get in and out. They meandered back and forth across the river footbridge, plying both sides of the market.
She saw people shopping, eating, visiting, and shopping some more, activity Arthur had hoped to see at the new location.
Arthur said one group of shoppers told her they compared the experience at the town square to Beloit’s downtown farmers market—a street market that’s become renowned in the region.
“They said, ‘We just want to tell you we just came from opening day in Beloit. And this market is very comparable to that, the square’s an awesome new place. It’s so spread out, you can hang out,’” Arthur said. “That was a really, really nice thing to hear.”
This story has been amended from an earlier version to clarify that Amazing Grace Family Farms produces and sells grass-fed beef.