CEDAR RAPIDS– There are two strict rules to guide Cedar Rapids’ NewBo City Market almost-anything-goes atmosphere: it has to be fresh. It has to be fun.
That’s why it is the place to be each Thursday and on weekends, where you can shop for farm-fresh produce, watch a cooking demonstration, experience a trendy flash mob by a local opera theater company and enjoy a relaxing glass of wine, all in the same place, any time of year.
“The idea behind NewBo is to make it a place people want to come to,” said NewBo City Market Director Ann Poe.
And come they do. Since opening in October 2012, the market bustles with activity, sights and sounds and smells that delight, friends who meet and eat, local artisans who proudly display their one-of-a-kind crafts, foods and artwork. The market is designed to be a gathering place for a diverse community.
It started as a vacant, flood-damaged shell of a building, the former Quality Chef Foods plant on Cedar Rapids’ southeast side and one of the thousands of casualties of the 2008 disaster. The city had purchased the property, but, like many other properties in the Czech Village area, it sat empty.
Poe was working in the Rebuild Iowa Office at the time, and heard of the budding vision of four women who were sitting around one evening, drinking wine and contemplating another impact of the flood; it left little to do in Cedar Rapids.
These women and their vision gained momentum that turned out to be a force even a floodwall couldn’t contain. Cedar Rapids businesswoman Sarah Ordover took over the project’s marketing and fundraising efforts with a goal of $3 million to renovate and repurpose the building, a total estimated cost of over $5 million.
Meanwhile, as an employee of Governor Culver’s Rebuild Iowa Office, Poe sat through dozens of Cedar Rapids City Council meetings, long and industrious affairs that led to her working with many key players in the city’s revitalization efforts after the flood. This project interested her from the beginning.
“There is an organization called PPS– Project for Public Spaces– and they do public markets all around the world. PPS has a model for success,” said Poe. PPS representatives visited Cedar Rapids, and they determined this building was a perfect location place for revitalization, in a district that had been flood impacted.
“The necessity for this neighborhood to come back as a vital, core district of our community was very important,” said Poe, who is now a member of Cedar Rapids City Council. A board of directors was formed, the council leased them the land, the market’s nonprofit organization was created, and fundraising efforts began. The capital campaign kicked off in May 2011, and in less than 18 months, with the award of a Vision Iowa Community Action and Tourism grant, Federal Emergency Management Agency funding, assistance from Linn County and the City of Cedar Rapids, and the generosity of private donors, Ordover helped usher the vision to reality.
NewBo is the first non-profit, public market in Iowa. It has a farmer’s market component May through October, with a variety of vendors– both permanent and intermittent– throughout the year. Anchor merchants include restaurateurs serving delectable foods from a range of cultures and influences; Asian, Caribbean, Latin, Mediterranean, Russian, Soul, simple deli and down-home barbecue, for example. Other permanent vendors offer fresh, locally-produced cheeses, meats, herbs, eggs (from not just chickens, but also geese, quail and ducks), vegetables and fruits, and more fresh goods can be found in the booths selling fair trade coffee, all-natural pastas, sweet confections and locally-grown flowers and plants. To satisfy even the most discerning palette, one vendor sells iced cupcakes that look like art and taste like heaven, in exotic flavors like cherry almond, red velvet cheesecake and white chocolate. The delicious aroma of fresh artisan bread, kneaded and baked right on site, wafts over it all, as some patrons can sit and enjoy a variety of wines from Iowa’s best wineries. Many of the foods and products sold are organic, preservative-free, and socially responsible.
“Our first focus will be homegrown food and putting a face on the farmer, so people understand the security of their food system,” said Poe. “People know who is growing their food, where it comes from and how it is being produced. We want to help make that connection between the food producer and consumers.”
The building’s design is also ecologically conscious. Much of its materials are sustainable. A cistern collects rainwater from the roof to water the market’s Learning Garden, where vegetables and ornamentals will be grown to offer teaching opportunities. Permeable pavers line the parking lot, where two electric car charging stations and a huge bicycle rack are available for patron use. Compostable packaging is used by vendors whenever possible.
Not just healthy for the environment, NewBo Market provides opportunities for fun, family-friendly movement. Yet to be announced is a partnership with four other entities that will schedule regular activities that involve music and exercise throughout the upcoming market season. Activities will be regularly scheduled to encourage exercise like dancing, biking and walking. Sand volleyball courts are right behind the market, and the location is about two blocks from a pedestrian trail.
“The original concept is to local, fresh food; a commitment to healthy lifestyles, and getting back to the basics,” said Poe.
In a partnership forged with Kirkwood Community College, the building contains a full, commercial quality kitchen that is used both by Kirkwood students and the market. Kirkwood uses it as an extension of their culinary arts program, while NewBo will use it to host a variety of food demonstrations for patrons, using some of the foods available at the market, occasionally featuring celebrity chefs.
NewBo is a place to celebrate the creative arts as well. Temporary vendors bring wares like handmade jewelry, textiles and soaps, for example. A juried arts festival will be held in the spring, and live background music is provided at each Thursday market by a range of local entertainers. A performance stage will be set up outdoors in the warmer months.
And, Poe said, don’t forget to bring the kids. The market had a Santa Claus, reindeer and Christmas cookies at their holiday market. An egg hunt is slated for Easter time, and other fun things will regularly be on the menu at the new children’s play area, coming this spring.
“We will always have something new, different and inviting for everybody,” said Poe.
NewBo Market is situated to be a complement to Cedar Rapids’ regular downtown farmers market held in the spring and summer, and it is a natural fit for the New Bohemia district that is finding new ways to celebrate the rich traditions of the city’s old Czech heritage.
“Throughout centuries, public markets have been places for commerce, places of social gatherings, places for celebrations and certainly places for healing,” said Poe. In 2009, she said people started returning to Cedar Rapids’ downtown, even though buildings were empty and businesses closed.
“It was the place they knew to come, to find their neighbors and friends. They’d ask about relatives impacted by the flood. ‘What happened to your business? Where is it located? How about your family home?’ It was a place to heal,” said Poe. Situated on the corner of 3rd Street and 12th Avenue, in the heart of the city’s revitalized New Bohemia area and right next to downtown, “NewBo Market is an extension of that healing. It’s been nothing short of amazing,” she said.