When Binghampton's Urban Farms Market closed last August, no one was certain it would ever open again. A "For Sale" sign on the property suggests the quick rise and fall of this small, green grocer in the heart of a community where few options for fresh foods and groceries have led to its dubious distinction as a "food desert."
But despite signs to the contrary, the Binghampton Development Corporation says the market will open this summer for a truncated three-month season. They plan to be open four to five days each week.
"We've decided to reopen for June, July, and August," said Robert Montague, executive director of the BDC, which oversees the Urban Farm and the Urban Farms Market. "The year-round market just wasn't economically viable. We couldn't get the customer volume to reach critical mass."
In March 2011, Urban Farms Market opened in a converted gas station at the corner of Tillman and Sam Cooper. Heralded as an alternative to the unhealthy, limited options at convenience stores, the market was intended as an oasis for the underserved community around it. The nearby Urban Farm, set on three acres of reclaimed land tucked away in a residential neighborhood, provided fresh produce for the market.
"The Urban Farms Market was opened in response to the overwhelming demand from the residents of Binghampton," the Binghampton Development Corporation's website reads.
"Previously, this neighborhood had little to no access to fresh food, and local folks were forced to settle for the limited and unhealthy corner store selection or make the up to two-hour trek by bus to a local supermarket."
The market will now scale back operations, partially because of its determination to focus on the Binghampton community.
"The heart behind the market was always to serve the Binghampton community we were located in," said Catherine Gross, former market manager at Urban Farms Market, "but I think where we really struggled was reaching that demographic. I think that was a big propeller in the switch to the shorter market."
June through August is the length of Tennessee's Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a voucher program that entitles low-income seniors to fresh, local fruits and vegetables. Gross says these were the months last year when Urban Farms Market came closest to achieving its community outreach goals.
"That was really the highlight of actually seeing people from the neighborhood come to the market," she said. "I do think that picking those months was very strategic."
Binghampton, particularly the area around Tillman where the Urban Farms Market is located, is a predominantly low-income neighborhood. Gross says the competing goals of attracting shoppers outside of Binghampton and the underserved residents within made for an identity crisis of sorts.
"I think we could have come off as trying to cater too much to the population surrounding Binghampton instead of focusing on ways that would really get [Binghampton residents] to come into the market," Gross said.
Montague is currently searching for a market manager to take over this summer's operations. As for the market building at the corner of Sam Cooper and Tillman, Montague says the owners, the Pirtle family of Jack Pirtle's Chicken, has agreed to allow the Urban Farms Market to continue using the space for this year. But the "For Sale" sign will stay up, and beyond this season, the fate of the Urban Farms Market remains uncertain.
"It was part of a steep learning curve for all of us involved," said Gross, who now works for the Memphis outpost of the nonprofit World Relief. "It is a big cultural shift when you go into food deserts and say, 'Hey you! You don't have access to food. Here is food.' And then you're offering them all this new stuff that was never made available before. It's kind of like us coming in and saying, 'Here, you need this.' And maybe the community is not responding to it or not seeing it as a need."