The next blog in our series is from HOPE FM Development Director Lizzie Garrett, whose vision, leadership and personality have gone into making HOPE FM the vibrant market and community it is today. Lizzie is a tenacious community builder whose super-human work ethic, big heart and unique perspective as a designer bring people together around food, music and art. She’s the kind of person I can brainstorm with for hours and end up with a whiteboard full of drawings and ideas so pretty I want to frame them.
Lizzie is getting ready to head off on her next adventure in a couple of weeks and we sure are going to miss her! Luckily she’s done so much for the market that she will always be part of HOPE FM.
Good luck, Lizzie, and THANK YOU for everything you’ve done for our market and community!
– Alexa Senter, HOPE FM Market Director
In October 2009, I packed up my car and moved from Virginia to Austin. Within a few weeks, I found my way to the brand new HOPE Farmers Market and was immediately inspired and intrigued. I started off volunteering and over the next 3½ years, I wore every hat possible. People often ask me if I ever plan to use my degree (in architecture) again; I use it all the time. I think of the Market as collective urban design – bringing people together to cultivate an innovative and productive community. We (the Market team) curate the process, but each contributor, from farmer to musician, participates in the creation of a vibrant local economy and culture.
The Market began as a placemaking project, turning a funky East Austin warehouse into a weekly food and creativity hub. It was a multi-faceted experiment and over time it took a great deal of energy to keep it going, especially through the summers. There’s a funny (in retrospect) news clip featuring the Market in 2011 – Texas was in a horrible drought and the story pointed out the distinct lack of farmers and shoppers. We were in a bad spot. Some vendors stuck it out because they were incredibly loyal and believed in the project, but it was clear that we had to make some changes. We couldn’t fix the drought; we could give the project the attention it needed, and I took the position as the first full-time Market Director in January 2012.
The first thing to do was prioritize: focus on food. In order to grow, the Market simultaneously needed more vendors and more customers, but without one it was hard to secure the other. People enjoyed the art and live music but didn’t buy groceries; we promoted food-centered education and programming. Others came to shop but were disappointed by the lack of farmers; we created the HOPE Farm Stand. While technically reselling – a controversial practice among local food purists – the Farm Stand increases access to local produce while supporting, without overextending, growers.
By casting a wide net, we actively reached out to engage the larger community. We hosted neighborhood popup markets, set up booths at local festivals, and presented at a series of lunch-n-learns with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. As health department liaisons, produce peddlers and community connectors (via relationships with local chefs and organizations like Slow Money and Center 61), we established ourselves as valuable resources to our vendors. Finally, we launched a rebranding campaign and a new website to clearly communicate what the Market is and what it does.
It was an iterative and exhausting process, but the crazy thing was that it started working. Incredibly skilled and dedicated people joined the team at just the right moments, and the Market grew into a full-blown organization. We established an informal business incubation program, attracting innovative new vendors and encouraging cross-collaboration and vendor-to-vendor mentorship. By fall 2012, we were setting sales and attendance records on a regular basis.
As it gained momentum, the Market needed a larger and more accessible space. We looked around and set our sights on the beautiful yet underutilized Plaza Saltillo, eventually securing partnerships with the City of Austin and Cap Metro. The big move in March marked the beginning of a new era for the Market. We now accept SNAP benefits and are diversifying our live music program and vendor base to welcome and serve a larger portion of the East Austin community. There are new opportunities for designers to share their skills, including the Mobile Farm Stand (a prototype of which is currently in production). We’re also continuing to push the limits of what constitutes a “farmers market” as the focus shifts toward making healthy food accessible and relevant to more people, at the intersection of community and culture.
As exciting as this new era promises to be, I will be observing from afar. I take off on my next adventure – a move to San Francisco – in a few weeks. To every colleague, vendor, volunteer and supporter who has been involved in any capacity: thank you. Your contributions and imaginations collectively create this wonderful community that is the HOPE Farmers Market.
HOPEFM Development Director
Next up in The Story of the Market Series: Alexa Senter, HOPEFM Market Director