CORTLAND, N.Y. — The Homer Avenue Plaza, formerly home to a Grand Union supermarket, Philadelphia “Philly” Sales department store, and an Eckerd Pharmacy, will soon get a facelift and likely be the new home of a year-round indoor farmers’ market.
The dilapidated L-shape plaza at 172 Homer Ave., located adjacent to the Cortland County Junior Fairgrounds, is currently only occupied by a Dollar General store. The nonprofit organization Seven Valleys Health Coalition, however, hopes to bring fresh, healthy, local foods to the location with a perennial farmers’ market.
The venue is currently owned by the Cortland YMCA, but they’ve scrapped plans to relocate some of their programs to the large commercial space. David Yaman, of Yaman Realty Services, is working with a coalition of nonprofits—including Seven Valleys Health Coalition, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County, Cortland County Historical Society, and the YWCA of Cortland—to refurbish and repurpose the underutilized shopping center.
Other members of the Cortland Food Project—which is helping the farmers’ market get on its feet—include Main Street Farms, Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO), United Way for Cortland County, SUNY Cortland, TC3 Farm, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, Food Bank of Central New York, Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Sustainable Cortland, among others.
Yaman, who is on the nonprofit board of directors for the project, said his role in the process is to help generate the funds needed and identify improvements to make the latent plaza a thriving community center again.
“The Homer Avenue shopping center is a typical aging center in an environment that is constantly shifting in terms of retail. Retail is shifting more toward computer [digital] purchases, and it’s also gravitating toward high-traffic areas,” Yaman said. “This shopping center was, in its heyday, doing very well. In the past 15 to 20 years, it’s been vacant and become a drag on the neighborhood. It’s important to be open to a resolution to improve and retrofit it.”
Seven Valleys Health Coalition (SVHC) is spearheading the project. Both Susan Williams, SVHC Project Manager, and Gabrielle DiDomenico, SVHC Project Coordinator, detailed the history of the endeavor, from market analysis to grants applied for and won, and the very heart of the project, pinpointing their desire to create a sustainable healthy community.
Seven Valleys Health Coalition was awarded a Farmers Market Promotion Program grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) , totaling a little less than $150,000. The group has also applied for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)grants that focus on the training aspect of creating a livable, healthy community, and they’re currently in the process of applying for another USDA grant due Dec. 4. SVHC has identified other grants they plan to pursue in the near future, as well.
Henceforward, each nonprofit will conduct their own capital campaigns, but for now, the target is to acquire the funding needed to get the farmers’ market up and running.
Objectives of the market analysis done by SVHC are aimed toward researching, analyzing, and understanding producer to consumer direct sales. In the Cortland area, that meant identifying and understanding barriers that stand between low-income community members and the availability and means of going to a farmers market; establishing a medium for cultivating a flourishing agritourism scene, specifically the creation of a food trail map; media campaigns; community events; and both consumer and producer surveys of local food habits and local food systems, with a focus on local food options.
SVHC visited various sites in Cortland and Cortlandville but ultimately decided on the Homer Avenue Plaza location because of its proximity to Interstate 81. Williams said it was a “wonderful” gateway for connecting the Homer, Cortlandville, and Cortland communities, but also, the location allows for a better agritourism push.
The farmers’ market will likely only be open on the weekends, allowing the space to be utilized for various community functions during the week, including—and not necessarily limited to—a commercial kitchen, with options to rent the venue for weddings, large group meetings, or classes.
Local residents interested in and concerned about the project posed questions to the board of directors ranging from the probability of launching a grocery store on the east end of Cortland to improving public transportation; i.e., adding routes to make the farmers market easily accessible. A curious attendee asked what the board of directors define as “local,” and Williams said their priority “is to support Cortland County vendors.”
Another community member asked if this farmers’ market will be anything like the one in Ithaca, and although SVHC is open to incorporating Grab-N-Go food and various crafts into the space, they stressed that the focus was on buying produce. Another concerned resident asked if their market analysis reflected a demographic that would,or could. support and sustain a farmers market. he answer was a resounding “yes.” Nearly 80 percent of the more than 600 people surveyed said they’d like to buy more local foods than they currently do.