Eighteen months after its opening, the Liberty Street Market has yet to attract a consistent group of vendors, but community leaders are using the facility to distribute free food and clothes, and as a location for a fitness class and worship services.

Since the Liberty Street Market opened on a busy corridor in a struggling part of northeast Winston-Salem in October 2014, the facility has yet to attract a group of vendors who regularly show up and sell their goods to the public.

Mercedes Miller, who initially won a contract from the city to operate the market, pulled out last year in the middle of the growing season. In the absence of a viable plan to set up a functioning market, the facility is being used as a staging area for distributing free food and clothing and as a site for a community fitness class and worship services.

For the past seven months, a truck from Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC has been showing up every Thursday morning to distribute breakfast cereals, produce, sodas, cookies and cakes. The local coordinator for the effort is Mattie Young, the president of the residents’ council at Cleveland Avenue Homes, a public housing community.

The Cleveland Avenue Transformation Team, or CATT, holds its East Side Energizer fitness class under the market’s open pavilions every Saturday morning.

And Glory of God Worship & Enrichment Center hosts worship services at the facility every Sunday morning. Winston-Salem Community & Business Development Director Ritchie Brooks said the church distributes free food and clothing after its service once a month.

Marquita Wisley, a cofounder of CATT, said the facility got off to a rough start.

“When they first built the market, they didn’t speak to the residents about it; they talked to the businesses about what they wanted,” she said. “Fencing off the market, it showed the residents that they didn’t want us.”

She added that prior to the construction of the facility — a pair of pavilions, one enclosed and one open, and a parking lot — the area served as a cut-through from Cleveland Avenue Homes to the stores on Liberty Street. Now that the facility is fenced off residents have to walk around it, creating a hardship for the elderly in particular.

A lack of market research also hampered the success of the effort.

“I don’t think they took into account the kinds of things that residents would buy,” Wisley said. “Someone said, ‘I’m going to go over there because they’re living in a food desert. I’m going to take over zucchini and cauliflower.’ A lot of people in the community don’t eat zucchini and cauliflower. They don’t know how to prepare it. People buy produce over here — things like onions, peppers, potatoes, snap peas, beans — the kinds of things that African Americans customarily eat.”

Another disconnect occurred with the cultural programming in the market’s early days.

“There were a couple community concerts that we just didn’t have any idea they were going on until we heard the music and we walked over,” Wisley said. “It kind of shows that they didn’t make this for us. I don’t think people do things like that on the west side. I find it hard to believe that they would throw an event and not tell the residents.”

Notwithstanding her concerns about how the market was launched, Wisley and other residents at Cleveland Avenue Homes are working on some initiatives to help the facility gain traction. They’re collaborating with the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity and the Cooperative Extension Services to plant a garden on 22nd Street with the goal of eventually having the residents earn income by selling produce.

Wisley credited the city with promptly opening the market to residents any time they want to use it.

“A lot of people don’t have cash to spend on food because they get EBT benefits,” Wisley said. “If the market was open and it was EBT accessible I’m sure it would be utilized. I’m not even sure anyone has thought about that.”

Brooks said any discussion of a market study to determine what complement of goods people in the neighborhood want and what price point would work for both vendors and customers, at best, is the preliminary stage at this point.

“There has been some discussion on that, although not a lot in detail,” he said. “One of the groups that we have talked with has even discussed doing that. It would be safe to say that we’re open to any group that would be able to provide a good service that we can work a reasonable agreement with.”

Marva Reid, president of the East/Northeast Winston Neighborhood Association, has criticized the mismanagement of the market from the outset. She operated the East Winston Community Market as a volunteer in an open lot at Hooper Funeral Home — about five blocks from the Liberty Street Market — from 2009 to 2014. Reid said her market attracted up to 10 vendors selling everything from jewelry and computers to dolls, sundresses and cologne. Reid sold produce that she grew from her garden, and a man occasionally brought watermelons. She said two vendors eventually graduated to brick-and-mortar stores, including her nephew, Elreeso Miller, who now operates the Munchies Delight store on Sprague Street.

Reid has said in the past that she didn’t want to leverage her influence to promote the Liberty Street Market because she believes the selection of a coordinator was politicized and she didn’t want someone else to profit from her effort. During a recent interview she expressed concern that distributing free food at the facility will undermine any future effort to establish a commercial market because people who are in the habit of getting goods for free will be reluctant to pay for them.

Brooks said he sees no conflict between the facility being used in the interim to distribute free food and a future market with commercial vendors seeking payment in exchange for their goods.

“Even if there were some kind of commercial market in that area there’s still a certain population that needs the kind of assistance that Second Harvest and certain other groups would be able to provide,” he said. “I don’t think it would be a competition for vendors and nonprofit groups to be in the same area.”

From the perspective of Mattie Young, who at 89 years old is known as “the mayor of Cleveland,” the food distribution is much appreciated. She said the service attracts 170-200 people per week.

“It’s a wonderful program,” she said. “I also give out clothes. A lot of people are in need of a lot of things. I’m trying to help people. A lot of people have need at this time. There are a lot of young mothers with children they need to clothe, and they have no husband. I think the Lord is keeping me around to help.”

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