In the last few years, the 8th Street farmer’s market has introduced Boise to a number of refugee entrepreneurs and their products. Many shoppers now look forward to the sambusas or the fresh produce that they bring to the market on Saturdays. This wonderful opportunity for immigrant entrepreneurs to connect with the larger community is made possible through the support and assistance of various local agencies and non-profits and a public venue, like the farmer’s market, that provides a low-risk entry point for such nascent, capital-constrained businesses in need of affordable retail space. However, being seasonal, the farmer’s market can’t provide vendors the steady livelihood they need year round.

All over the world, urban markets are re-inventing themselves, expanding beyond their roles as trading or festival sites to become fusion spaces that stimulate entrepreneurship and creativity and enhance cultural identity. Fusion spaces support a mix of functions, ranging from production to consumption of everyday products from arts and crafts to cultural, entertainment and leisure activities. Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel is an example. Built in 1916, this market now hosts 33 vendors offering the most famous delicacies from all over Spain under one roof, while also having the capacity to hold anything from concerts to exhibitions to press conferences.

Borough Market, London

Samia Islam
Borough Market, London

The Treasure Valley has become home to many immigrants and refugees from around the world in the last two decades. Among those who have arrived in Boise as part of the refugee resettlement program are skilled professionals, craftsmen and artists. Currently, many of them are underemployed in various low-end service industry jobs, working long hours for low pay, unable to utilize their skills and expertise. Boise could benefit greatly by providing a “fusion space” where these creative people could showcase their crafts and products.

The recently approved Boise International Market is envisioned to be such a year-round, multi-cultural public market/fusion space that will have both indoor and outdoor spaces for small businesses and community events featuring a selection of small ethnic start-ups. Located in what was the old Vietnamese Restaurant at the intersection of Franklin and Curtis roads, this market will provide minority entrepreneurs from various Treasure Valley ethnic groups the opportunity to connect and integrate with the community.

The Boise International Market has found an alternate use for a burnt-down, abandoned restaurant building in an economically distressed neighborhood. One of the major roles of urban markets, and the primary reason for the recent resurgence of markets in city policy worldwide, is their ability to revitalize unused, abandoned spaces in low-income neighborhoods. The multi-country URBACT Markets project in the EU is one example. Thus, the location is ideal as it is in the heart of one of the most densely populated and diverse census tracts in Boise. The area is easy to access via Franklin by auto, transit or bike. There is a sizeable presence of various ethnic households and businesses in the locality. Some Boise shoppers are already used to frequenting the neighborhood for their weekly fix of tortas or bahn mis or empanadas. What’s even more exciting is that the success of the market could draw more businesses to the area – this is what we refer to in urban economics as agglomeration effects. The Census 2010 population around the proposed market is 5,746;  the tract is designated as an “urban cluster,” an area of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people. 

This multipurpose market will host food vendors, ethnic boutiques, craftsmen and artists, as well as musical performances in a lounge setting, art competitions and exhibitions for the community. It will also enable the entrepreneurs, artists and craftsmen to pursue their business ventures and creative abilities year round in a permanent location. Thus far a privately funded initiative, the Boise International Market is in an early stage and seeking support from the city leadership, non-profits and the community in general. Some non-profits are already collaborating with the developer, Urban Tide. Many other potential local partnerships and collaborations could result from this project but the enthusiasm of the city in embracing it and making it a part of the community identity will ultimately be the key to the market’s success. Partnerships could include knowledge sharing, reduced cost services and fee reductions or waivers by the city, utilities and other agencies. Transit could play a role in optimizing foot traffic at the location as well.

For centuries, urban markets have provided a secure venue for vendors and the public to trade in fresh produce at a central, easily accessible location. Markets were necessary so that local governments could ensure that the food being sold to city residents was safe for consumption. For meat, this was especially important and having the butchers housed in one specific area allowed for easier monitoring and quality control. Many European markets thus began as hubs for butchers. Public markets also allowed cities to protect the public from high prices, shortages or even fraud since all transactions had to be carried out in the open in front of numerous witnesses, including city officials. However, there was more to markets than just a secure trading environment — vendors also used the venue to publicize their goods through organizing festivals and fairs. Markets thus engendered trust and credibility as well as a sense of community from their inception.

Europe, Asia and the Middle East have a long history of central public markets. In the U.S., public markets were an equally important part of early urban history. York Market in New York, High Street Market of Philadelphia, Central Market in Washington and Lexington Market in Baltimore were all vital to their local economies. And in some cases, like the Lexington Market in Baltimore, they still are. Today, the 232-year-old Lexington Market covers nearly 100,000 square feet and houses 140 merchants. But when we look at the urban market success stories, be they from Europe or the U.S., city sponsorship and support has been crucial for their long-term sustainability.

La Boqueria Market, Barcelona, Spain

Samia Islam
La Boqueria Market, Barcelona, Spain

Studies have shown that markets are a powerful catalyst for (1) local employment and wealth creation, (2) entrepreneurship development, (3) town center regeneration and (4) the sustainability of urban areas (through an emphasis on locally sourced products and low carbon economies). For a listing of many such studies, see the EU’s URBACT Markets project page. Markets not only make a significant contribution to the local economy but they also have tremendous cultural and social importance in enhancing community cohesion. Particularly for new immigrants, refugees and asylees, markets can provide the opportunity to become economically self-reliant and socially engaged. Immigrant and refugee businesses, often small-scale, tend to locate in low-income, older and, thus, more central urban neighborhoods, i.e., exactly where the city needs the intervention  — the most neglected or blighted areas. These types of businesses strengthen the economic base of their neighborhoods by investing in residential and commercial real estate. The Orchard and Overland area of Boise is a prime example of the potential for this type of immigrant business-led urban regeneration. According to a 2012 Small Business Administration (SBA) commissioned report, average immigrant-owned business annual sales and receipts are $435,000, vs. $609,000 for native owned.

The urban market setting can act as an incubator for small-scale start-ups. The market allows new entrepreneurs to connect with other vendors and exchange ideas, generating knowledge spillovers. It allows them to connect with the public, understand the demand for their product, receive feedback, improve their product and perhaps eventually prepare to brand their product for a broader market. In turn, the presence of a cluster of creative and multi-cultural small businesses in the city enables the local area residents to experience diversity and variety in products, practices and perspectives. More importantly, they can create economic opportunity and a sense of community for the most economically vulnerable, the refugee population. For Boise, this particular consideration is especially relevant.

According to Idaho Office for Refugees data, between 2001 and 2011, more than 5,000 refugees arrived in Idaho, most of them settling in Boise. In 2005, up to 95 percent of the employable found work in the Boise economy but by 2012, only 70 percent found employment locally. When financial assistance expires, refugee families are hit especially hard in a recessionary economy. The key to true rehabilitation is not in extending refugee assistance programs but in helping refugees attain self-sufficiency by developing a bottom-up approach that builds upon their own skills and entrepreneurial abilities.

Alexander Betts, director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, a research center that focuses on refugee livelihoods and innovation, believes that refugees tend to be “natural entrepreneurs.” Their particular experience of having had to struggle against great odds to be where they are is a testament to their resilience and resourcefulness. However, it can still be challenging for new arrivals or refugees to start a business in the mainstream economy while simultaneously trying to adapt to a new socio-economic environment with limited access to capital, lack of local cultural know-how and/or language proficiency. According to a brief on immigrant and refugee businesses from the St. Louis Fed published in 2006, most new immigrants who have been in a place less than two years do not rely on financial institutions or government programs to start their business. Rather, they seek financial assistance from family or friends who have confidence in their success. Clearly, these are the people and the businesses that stand to benefit greatly from urban markets, and the scale and flexibility that they offer.

Great markets make great cities. Most travel guides will tell you that you cannot experience the quintessential London without having been to the Borough Market, or, for that matter, what is Seattle without Pike’s Place? In post-recessionary America, cities like Boise can look to markets as a driver for urban revitalization, especially when it comes to the rehabilitation of economically vulnerable residents.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.