Thursday, August 28, 2003

An artist's idea of what a farmers market complex could look like in Honolulu.

Selling the farm

An idea is sprouting for
a major farmers market

The idea of a farmers market complex in Honolulu, similar to popular public markets such as Seattle's Pike Place and Vancouver's Granville Island, is attracting support from a variety of backers.

A market, which would sell local produce, seafood and meat in addition to prepared food and crafts, is being promoted as a way to boost local agriculture in a way that also provides an attraction for residents and tourists. The complex would also could contain attractions such as a stadium for cooking demonstrations, meeting rooms, a culinary museum and restaurants.

The state Department of Agriculture is distributing a feasibility study to developers and others interested in the project. It follows a smaller 2001 study by the department that was requested by legislators. While the first study looked at the potential for some kind of permanent public market place, the latest study goes one step further, flushing out the details on everything from what such a development would look like, to what it would contain and how much it would cost.

Tentatively referred to as "The Gathering Place," the report suggests several potential locations, including Kakaako, Aloha Tower, Chinatown, Sand Island and Pier 35, site of the state's unopened fish market. Just over five acres would be needed to house the market and its surroundings, according to the study.

A large farmers market would attract residents as well as tourists, supporters say.

But the most suitable site would be the Kakaako waterfront next to Kewalo Basin, state land where the Fisherman's Wharf restaurant is located, said Rep. Felipe "Jun" Abinsay Jr. (D, Kalihi-Kapalama), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and one of the proposal's biggest supporters.

It would also be near the University of Hawaii medical school now under construction and an aquarium proposed for the area, he said.

Abinsay believes the location would attract visitors as well as local residents who already frequent the Victoria Ward Centers' shops, restaurants and theater.

"This would be the best location to bring people together," he said.

Fisherman's Wharf manager Sonny Morihara, who had not heard about the study, said the restaurant has been operating on the site under a revocable permit arrangement with the state for a number of years.

Abinsay said he is ready to sit down with key individuals and groups, such as the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which has oversight for the Kakaako redevelopment; the chairwoman of the Department of Agriculture, Sandra Kunimoto; the governor; and potential developers.

"We'll bring everybody together again in the next few weeks and then connect with the governor," he said.

While the land belongs to the state, ideally it should be a private entity who would take the lead in development, Abinsay said.

In informal talks at least three groups have showed interest, Abinsay said.

One logical choice would be General Growth Properties, which already owns Ala Moana Center and Ward, Abinsay said.

"They are very much interested and are very supportive, although we are open to any developer who might be interested. Hopefully we would select someone who has the expertise and money but who also really cares about Hawaii," he said.

As well as food-related businesses selling fresh produce and fish, and restaurants, the market could also be a portal for a growing variety of Hawaii processed products and products from the Neighbor Islands, Abinsay said.

The study estimates that the market could cost between $24 million and $30 million to build, not including the cost of land. Once operational, it would cost more than $1 million a year to operate. While it would initially not generate enough revenue to cover its costs, the study's authors say their estimates are conservative and do not include potential revenue from wider uses for the facility. For example, a food stadium for televised food contests, meeting rooms, a culinary school and a Pacific and Asian culinary museum were proposed as revenue generators.

From the small business perspective, the market would also offer opportunities to entrepreneurs who could not otherwise afford to operate a storefront. The report notes that Starbucks Coffee began as an independent business in Seattle's Pike Place market. Moreover, it noted many of the food trends seen in the past several decades were often introduced at markets and later picked up by chefs and food writers before making their way into the general population.

Oahu farmer Dean Okimoto, of Nalo Farms, is hopeful such a market will come about.

"I think it's a great idea if you can get someone to build it," he said.

Okimoto has been involved in creating a farmers market on a more modest scale. The market, run by the Farm Bureau, will be open every Saturday in the parking lot of Kapiolani Community College. The market starts Sept. 13 and will be open from 8 a.m. to noon.

Okimoto sees the market at the college as a way for farmers to get used to selling directly to the public and talking about what they produce -- something many haven't had experience doing but would need to do at a large public market such as the one envisioned in the study.

"You'll have farmers marketing their own produce and educating people about the importance of buying local so it will go hand in hand with 'The Gathering Place,'" he said.

Jeff Dinsmore, general manager for General Growth's Victoria Ward properties, says the idea of an expanded farmers market is something the company has thought about for some time and has informally talked with Kunimoto about the possibility.

"We think there is a need for one," he said.

Dinsmore said that about five years ago, before it was owned by General Growth, Victoria Ward commissioned its own study on the feasibility of a market. "Fortunately, the agriculture market has changed dramatically in that time. It's unbelievable what's being grown. If you look at the list of products being grown, even on Oahu it's staggering," he said.

Dinsmore agrees that a stand-alone farmers market hall would need to be supported by other revenue-producing ventures.

"There really needs to be a component of something else you lease around it," he said.

Dinsmore also believes in the Kakaako location for the market. "Kewalo is probably a natural site for it," he said.

Andres Albano, vice president and development consultant for commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, said such a project would attract developers both from Hawaii and out of state.

"This makes absolute sense. Only once in a while do projects come along that make sense and also feel good," he said.

Since the Kakaako site is state land, Albano believes the state should facilitate.

"If I were the state, I would bend over backwards to make this thing work," he said.

The Department of Agriculture's Kunimoto favors a private developer taking on the project. But she said her department would be available to facilitate and provide information to whoever would be interested in developing it.

Help is also available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its marketing service, Kunimoto said. "They help to develop farmers markets around the country," she said.

Kunimoto said that surveys done both as part of the study and at the national level by the USDA have shown farmers markets are popular.

"We know they are a big draw and the survey done showed locals and visitors would be interested, so it would be a very good tool to draw people to the area," she said.

The number of farmers markets nationwide is also growing. The USDA found that they had increased 79 percent from 1994 to 2002 and now number over 3,100 nationwide.

The USDA also found 82 percent of farmer's markets are self-sustaining, meaning the income they produce is enough to pay for all costs.

Farmers market facts:

>>The largest farmers markets nationwide average 25,000 to 50,000 customers a week.

>> Public markets bring jobs. The study estimates a market in Honolulu would generate about 230 full-time jobs on-site and 65 off-site jobs. The vendors and management at Seattle's Pike Place Market provide about 2,000 jobs.

>> Honolulu Farmers Market vendors could generate a total $19 million a year in sales. Seattle's Pike's Place market generated $59 million in revenue in 2000 with 9 million visits. The Portland Public market in Maine, with a city population of 65,000, generated $8 million in its third year of operation.

>> Customers spend on average $17.30 a week at farmers markets.

>> Most markets are self-sustaining, but 18 percent are not. These were primarily supported by various government agencies, business groups, non-profit organizations, individual donations and grants.

Sources: "The Gathering Place of Honolulu," U.S. Department of Agriculture

Potential vendors

>> Fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, dairy products, meats/deli, teas/coffees, culinary ingredients, condiments, flowers/plants, prepared foods and restaurants, local handcrafts, culinary academy, food and culinary museum, food demonstration area suitable for televised contests and programs, meeting rooms


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