In Network News

Original Publisher: Niagara Gazette

Reporter: Mark Sheer

Artisan Day event brings signs of hope to Niagara Falls City Market

The SnobKnockers played outdoors at the Niagara Falls City Market on Friday.

Next door to them, in a trailer that serves as Lend a Leaf’s business on wheels, Jessica Nyland served specialty coffees and teas.

Nyland was part of a larger group of vendors — mostly made up of local farmers — who were selling apples and empanadas and chicken soup and all manner of food and homemade items along the brick-paved area beneath the awning where City Market sellers have been selling fresh produce and more to customers for years.

Friday’s festivities were part of an Artisan Market, a special event designed to breath more life into what has been a staple off Pine Avenue near 18th Street for, by most estimates at least 100 years, or at least more years than most people who still frequent the market can remember.

Sheri Senek’s family business, Senek Farms, which has been in business in Ransomville for a century now, has been a presence at the Falls market for decades. The Senek family truck makes an appearance each week, all year long.

To Senek, hearing the SnobKnockers play while watching more customers engage with a wider variety of vendors represented two things she’s wanted most for the market for many years: Signs of progress and hope.

“This is amazing,” said Senek, whose father-in-law, Senek Farms founder John Senek started the family tradition of selling produce at the Falls market decades ago. “This is what we’re hoping for. We’ve got new vendors that we’re hoping will continue to come.”

“This is what we do,” she added. “We’re farmers. We’ve always come here. We brought our produce to the city. This market has always been an important part of this community.”

Up until this year, the city market was managed, under a deal struck with Niagara Falls city government in 1999, by Lewiston businessman Al Muto. In May, city lawmakers, at the urging of Mayor Robert Restaino’s administration, agreed to buy Muto out of his market lease, which ran through July 2032, with an additional 44-year option that could have been extended to 2076.

City officials agreed to spend $2 million in American Rescue Plan funds to terminate the city’s lease with Muto Development and reacquire control of the market and six adjacent properties. They are now working with various partners in hopes of reimagining the space for vendors, tenants and local residents.

One main partner is the Field and Fork Network, Inc., a non-profit organization that works with communities in an effort to promote more sustainable food systems. The Falls City Council agreed in August to enter into a management agreement for the market with the organization. That same month, the Network announced that it had reached an agreement to allow city market vendors to accept Supplemental Nutrition Program, or SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps.

Senek said it has been a big boost for farmers who frequent the market and for Falls residents who need access to fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables.

“It’s been a big benefit,” she said.

Tony Poletti, owner of the Marketside restaurant at the City Market and president of the Pine Avenue Redevelopment Project, Inc., a local group dedicated to reimagining the Pine Avenue commercial strip, said he’s hopeful better days are ahead for the market, mainly because it feels to him like the right organizations and people are now coming together to make it better.

“There’s a lot of good people that are focused on the right things so I have a positive outlook for the future of Pine Avenue and the city market,” said Poletti, who served chicken soup to customers during Friday’s event.

Nyland, a DeVeaux resident who started her coffee-and-tea-on-the-go business a year and a half ago, said she heard from a lot of market “regulars” who were excited to see more activity than they have seen in recent years. She said she’s looking forward to coming back in the future.

“It’s so nice to see people interacting with one another,” she said.

The SnobKnockers — a trio that includes local bed and breakfast owner Shelia Zuni, Michael Sheffield and George Kobas — entertained the market crowd throughout the morning and into the afternoon.

Zuni said the band would return to the market if invited and she hopes other local bands will begin to view the space as a place where they can — like the farmers and the vendors — engage with the community.

“There’s so much potential here,” she said.

Anne Marie DeRusso agrees.

The new director for the City Market helped organize Friday’s Artisan Day. While it is the final special event planned for 2022, DeRusso said Field and Fork Network and other partners intend to spend the winter months planning more events and, hopefully, more market improvements next year. She said part of the effort will involve exploring and promoting more of the market’s rich history.

“Mainly, it’s bringing business into the city, but it’s also getting good local produce into people’s hands,” she said.

How can people in and around Niagara Falls support the market moving forward?

DeRusso said, simply: Show up, not just on special event days but as frequently as possible.

“If we want the market to be successful, then we need people to come out,” she said.