It’s an idea whose time has evidently come, as developmental forces move to bring a “Ventura Marketplace” to the county seat, to offer a broad variety of local produce and wares to Gold Coast consumers. Among numerous plans in development are visions both local and from out of state that recognize the region’s diverse abundance and unique character as apt for a new imagining of the time-honored marketplace concept. How the visions are realized could comprise the next iteration in the battle for the way in which Ventura is developed, preserved or both.

“The idea is a fantastic one, obviously,” notes Ventura economic development manager Sid White. “It plays on our local strengths and our unique nature — but it can’t just be shoehorned in. This is a unique community. For this to work, it has to truly reflect that stature.”

Ventura resident Kat Merrick, who, with partner West Cooke, is behind one of the leading plans, known as VenTwo Market, agrees. “There are a couple of things you need to look at in evaluating these plans: Does it benefit the community? What’s being given back to the community? Is the effort sustainable in the long run for the community?”
The bond between community and marketplace is an ancient one — part grocery, part mercantile, part social center. It was in the strength of the marketplace that a village took root, drawing commerce from as widely as travel would permit. Thus were commerce and society wed in a symbiotic relationship that fed and funded the health of the village.

“There’s a history of great marketplaces throughout Europe that became a permanent part of the fabric of those communities,” said Mark Rivers, CEO of Boise Idaho’s Brix and Company, who is considering a very large plan for Ventura, to be known as the Golden State MarketHall.

Even as the two plans have similarities, one could not be mistaken for the other, distinguished by size, scope and focus. While the Brix plan brings a larger, corporate approach to the endeavor — intending to bring three MarketHalls to California communities yet to be determined — VenTwo market is smaller, focusing on Ventura’s unique heritage and the farm families on whose efforts it thrived. “Not only is VenTwo going to be a local market, it’s also going to be a hub for education,” Merrick explains. “About the history of Ventura, all that’s produced here, how to grow your own food at home, how to eat locally and in season, how to approach being a sustainable community.” Both plans also intend to offer prepared food, VenTwo’s anchored by Cooke, proprietor of the former Cooke’s Smokehouse.

While the larger plan is meant to provide a hall in which vendors lease and operate individual spaces, VenTwo’s style is proprietary. “A problem with some of these other plans we’ve heard about, they will cause a hit with our local farmers market, because they’ll have to recruit those vendors to populate their stalls,” Merrick said.

Rivers responds that such criticism indicates a lack of understanding of the process. “One of the benefits of a market hall is that it’s an economic incubator for small businesses and purveyors — the farmers market is the ‘minor league system’ as vendors start out there and then grow into a larger business inside the MarketHall.”

Cooke disagrees. “That approach is just another version of the ‘big box store.’ Our independents would have to absorb into that one just to stay alive — it’s a ‘join or die’ mentality.”

Despite differences in focus and scope, both plans have similar hurdles to clear. “For any concept to be successful, it will need money; it will need a coherent business plan; and it will require people who can execute the business plan,” said Ventura city manager Rick Cole. “I’m a big believer in shopping local, building local and celebrating local, but in the end that’s only one dimension. We have to see this to fruition, rather than stake out some preconditions that in the end may not be the most decisive.”

While both plans bring the potential for abundant financing, as with their focus, the developmental approaches diverge. For the Golden State MarketHall, decisive steps will come in the form of a land deal.

“The city could be a priority location of mine, but to date we haven’t been able to align the likely cultural fit with the needed real estate opportunity,” Rivers said.

VenTwo’s hurdle is another, as Merrick explains: “All we need is the community to make it successful. We’ve already got vineyards lined up that want to do tasting rooms; we’ve got commitments from local farmers to provide produce. We have all these purveyors lined up; we’ve done the homework — it’s all there.”

All concur that with proper execution, the concept is a home run. With such potential, notes Rivers, “there is a way for one plus one plus one to equal five.” His math may be unorthodox, but it’s a point, finally, on which everyone agrees.   

jimscolari@yahoo.com