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Published June 01, 2009, 12:00 AM

Duluth’s farmers market studied by MBA students

While local farmers are nurturing fruits and vegetables this summer for the Duluth farmers market, college students will be fine-tuning finance and marketing options to improve the health of the nearly 100-year-old nonprofit organization.

By: Andy Greder, Duluth News Tribune

While local farmers are nurturing fruits and vegetables this summer for the Duluth farmers market, college students will be fine-tuning finance and marketing options to improve the health of the nearly 100-year-old nonprofit organization.

The farmers market board of directors has solicited business advice from 18 graduate students from St. Mary’s University in the Twin Cities to help the market realize its potential and overcome pitfalls. Students have set out to compile a complete business plan with advice on one of the most important issues for the market: whether a move from the current facility to a new building is necessary to remain viable.

“The board needs a disseminator and people from a different perspective,” said Jim Laumeyer, a representative for the market. “The growers are important, but we need people that know business.”

The market’s current location at 1320 E. Third St., under a short-term lease with the city of Duluth, lacks running water, bathrooms for customers and adequate parking.

“The facility is a top issue,” Laumeyer said. “Customers will drive by because of the parking, and you hate to see that.”

The prospect of a new facility could provide the market with a chance to grow and a high-traffic location could provide marketing benefits without having to spend money on advertising, said student Travis Mjolsnes.

“We want to help bring the market to the next level,” Mjolsnes said. “They don’t have the time to do that with the busy season coming. We hope to provide unbiased advice.”

Vendor Peter Borgren of Mr. B’s Berries and Bouquets said he supports a new facility if the existing market remains open.

“I’m in total support for a new building, but I’m a Third Street market preservationist,” Borgren said. “I want to keep this market here.”

Vendor Lois Hoffbauer, who runs a family farm near Proctor, said a new building would attract new customers.

“If we want to make more money, we need more customers and more customers come with more parking,” Hoffbauer said.

The students questioned customers Saturday on interest in a new and larger facility within five miles to the current location, a coffee shop or cafe being at that location and interest in cooking or nutrition classes offered by the market.

Student Al Mamun interviewed about 10 customers “in a very diverse demographic” and learned that fresh produce was the top priority, while the new facility was the top concern.

“Most people said they like the rustic feeling in this place,” Mamun said. “When we talked about an expansion to a new building, most people said don’t take away the flavor with a lot of bells and whistles.”

The economic recession provides a two-fold situation for the farmers market.

On one hand, more shoppers are searching for bargains, including an emphasis on green products and nutrition, said Rick Callaway, the students’ professor.

“It’s an opportune time for them to grow,” Callaway said.

On the other hand, if students recommend a new facility with more parking and a longer-term lease and the market decides to pursue it, obtaining financing could prove difficult.

“If they recommend a new facility, then the [economic] environment could make that a challenge,” Laumeyer said.

While the final recommendations aren’t due until late summer, Borgren was impressed after meeting with a student Friday night.

“They amazed me,” Borgren said. “They made a lot of connections with a lot of businesspeople. We’ll have to wait and see what the final report says.”

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