East Lansing goes to market with upgrades for Valley Court Park

Rebecca Titus "grew up" alongside the East Lansing Farmer's Market. As co-owner of Leslie's Titus Farms, Titus was among about a dozen farmers in the mid- to late-1990s who set up stands near the blue and gold parking structure behind the Student Bookstore.

"There were never more than 15 vendors," says Titus of the late 20th century predecessor of the current farmer's market in the city's Valley Court Park. "We were there every Thursday night and Sunday morning until they stopped it around 2000."     

Titus fully embraced the market's return in 2009, and the gateway it provides every Sunday to residents interested in fresh, seasonal, Michigan-grown foods. She's among the 20 or more vendors who set up stands at East Lansing's Valley Court Park every Sunday from June through October. She's also one of two vendors on the market's advisory board, providing input on the management of the six-year-old reincarnation of the previous farmer's market. 

That vendor perspective, along with that of residents, is something city leaders have actively sought out as plans get underway for improving the infrastructure for the market and other areas of East Lansing's Valley Court Park. It's a renovation plan, city leaders say, will help connect the centrally-located park with downtown—particularly as the eagerly-anticipated Park District development moves through various planning stages. 

"We see the renovations and improvements as part of creating a whole sense of place and community," says Wendy Wilmers Longpre, associate director of parks, recreation and the arts. "It's important to have a good quality park if you're expecting it to contribute to the community."
History and change
Located just behind People's Church and ringed by homes, apartments and condos for a big city feel, Valley Court Park has long been a key player in providing valued recreational and community space for residents, students and visitors. Festivals, musical performances, outdoor movies and plays, and the farmer's market are among the popular activities, while an outer ring of parking provides welcome accommodations on MSU game days.

Park features include basketball goals, a newer playground and play structure, tennis courts, walkways, a Wi-Fi Plaza and open green space. Since the 1940s, the park has been home to the Valley Court Community Center, which houses the city’s ALFA (Active Living for Adults) Adult Day Services Program. A historic structure from the Board of Water and Light was also relocated to the park several years ago, with accessible walkways and an exterior stage adding to the charm and functionality.

"There are more people using the park now," says Wilmers Longpre. "And the demand will continue as more people start to live downtown and come to the newer developments."

The five-acre park is one of 23 parks in the city. Much of the infrastructure is 40 years old or more, with cracks, ruts and uneven surfaces that present safety and accessibility problems and hinder effective use of space. Many of the more than $115,000 in fixes and upgrades to Valley Court will directly benefit the city's farmer's market. The parking lot where vendors set up will be completely reconstructed, and site walkways replaced to improve accessibility.

Electrical outlets will be upgraded, and overgrown or scrappy landscaping will be replaced. Bike racks will be added, encouraging more people to ride in from adjoining neighborhoods or downtown. Among the more prominent fixes will be the installation of a new plaza with a performance space, decorative shade canopy and electrical service.

"Music is an important part of the market," says Ami Van Antwerp, communications coordinator for the City of East Lansing. "Now instead of being under a tent and in an area that gets muddy when it rains, performers will be able to set up on a concrete pad in a defined area."

Lansing singer-songwriter Jen Sygit is among the regular performers at the market. She says the venue aligns with her love of supporting local agriculture and green living, and puts her in direct contact with others who share similar points-of-view. The permanent performer structure, she says, is a bonus feature in an already welcoming atmosphere.

"This market is well-supported even in inclement weather," says Sygit. "So it's nice that musicians can still participate regardless of the ever-changing Michigan climate."
A well-versed crowd
Shari Rose is among the nearly 1,000 customers who come to East Lansing's grower's-only market every Sunday from June through October.

Since she lives nearby, Rose says she entices her two kids to join her by tempting them with a tasty brunch from one of the hot food vendors onsite, or an impromptu picnic of fruits and vegetables she buys from one of the approximately 21 vendors.

"I think the new improvements will be great," says Rose as she mentions how the Sunday market has become a social activity for her family. "I'm up for anything that makes it more of a gathering place. I like seeing everyone. I like the music in the background. It gets us out of the house and into the sunshine."

Vendor Pooh Stevenson and her husband Richard Bowie have been with the market for five years, and sell a full-line of certified organic vegetables and products through Owosso Organics. She says she values the devoted customers who come every single week, and feels the improvements to the space reconfirm the city's commitment to market vendors and customers.

"So far all we've seen are the blueprints," says Stevenson who also sits on the market's advisory committee. "It's difficult to visualize, but it looks like it will be a big improvement. East Lansing customers seem very committed and will enjoy what's being done."

Funding for the park and market renovations was approved in early March, and includes a $35,000 grant by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The city matched the grant with the Downtown Development Authority contributing $10,000 plus $15,000 for signage and a directional kiosk. About $56,000 will come from the city's general fund to solidify the commitment. Local contractor Laux Construction will begin renovations in April, with plans to complete in time for market's June opening.

Market Manager Abby Rudnicki started with the city in December 2013 and has experienced a warm reception to upcoming changes.

Rudnicki says that about two-thirds of vendors return every year, leaving space for new vendors to try out the market. Most have annual produce or products, others are seasonal. Some might come every other week. And a careful balance of variety and consistency ensures that the market is not weighted with too many vendors of the same type.

"It's not just staff who are talking about the market," says Rudnick. "It's everyone. It's so heartwarming to know it's had such an impact and to hear people say 'Oh, I love the honey guy," or 'I just love the fish guy.'"
The East Lansing Farmer's Market is just one of a dozen of similar markets that run throughout the summer in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties. The grower's-only market starts June 8 and runs every Sunday through October 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Valley Court Park.
Ann Kammerer is the development news editor for Capital Gains. 

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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