Can farmers markets spur economic, community redevelopment in Reading?

Farmers markets, such as this one in Easton, add vibrancy to cities that can foster economic development, experts say. PHOTO / EASTON FARMERS MARKET

Farmers markets not only provide opportunities for people to get local produce, meats, eggs, baked goods and other items, they also can be significant contributors to urban economies.

But public markets, which in many communities have disappeared, or are under threat of disappearing, have been shown to promote public health, bring people together and support local vendors, said Kelly Verel, senior director of programs and projects with the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. Verel, and Kurt Wheeler, also of the Project for Public Spaces, outlined way farmers markets can benefit downtowns at the Berks Alliance Community Forum, “Urban Farmers Markets and Downtown Development.”

Project for Public Spaces is an organization that helps cities plan and design public spaces. It recently launched a Market Cities Initiative, aimed at helping cities build, preserve or expand their public markets and assure they are productive and beneficial to the communities they serve.

The Market City strategy encourages public markets to join together to operate as one system instead of individual businesses. Cities of varying sizes can work toward becoming market cities, Verel said, but need the support of local government, businesses and agencies to be successful.

Aaron Gantz, senior director of economic development for the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance (GRCA), hopes Reading will consider becoming a Market City.

“The Market City model is definitely something we would love to contemplate for our community as we look to the future,” Gantz said after the session held last week. “The presentation today was a great introduction to the concept, and I hope it will be the start of community and organization-based conversation around collaboration and common goals.”

Reading has a long history of farmers markets, noted Courtney Shober, manager of the Penn Street Market, which is open in downtown Reading from June through September. And while those markets have changed in many ways, the purpose of them has stayed the same.

The Penn Street Market has been beneficial to vendors and residents, she said, providing educational programs, art and culture presentation, fitness demonstrations and other activities in addition to wholesome foods for residents who may have trouble finding them elsewhere.

Alex Roche is the project manager of the Reading branch of The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works to assure everyone has access to affordable, nutritious foods and to educate residents regarding the benefits of those foods. He said the introduction of Berks Farm Bucks in 2013 greatly increased the amount of spending at farmer’s markets and other locations that sell fresh produce in Reading and the surrounding area.

The Berks Farm Bucks program provides extra spending power to people who use WIC, SNAP or ACCESS cards to purchase local produce and goods. When the program was instated in Reading, only $2,000 was spent at city farmer’s markets and other locations where local produce was sold.

By 2020, that spending had increased by nearly 500%, Roche said. And, as residents used their WIC, SNAP or ACCESS cards, they were awarded Berks Farm Bucks, enabling them to buy additional produce and related products.

The Food Trust currently is working with the owners of corner stores in Reading to get them to stock fresh, local produce. “When we get local produce in those stores it means residents can buy it at better prices, and local farmers benefit, as well,” Roche said.

David Myers, an adviser at Berks Alliance, noted that Allentown and Lancaster have used farmers markets as anchors for redevelopment and there is interest in Reading for doing the same. The presence of farmers markets contributes to a community in many ways, he said, including economically.

A Conversation with: Jim Gerlach president and CEO of the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance

Gerlach –

Prior to joining GRCA, for the past five years, Gerlach was the president and CEO of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) in Washington, DC- a non-profit corporation helping companies and trade associations communicate with their employees on a non-partisan basis about important policy issues  and candidates for public office, and motivating them to be engaged advocates and voters.

Before that, he served six terms — 12 years — in the U.S. House or Representatives serving the citizens of Pennsylvania’s Sixth District, which included parts of Berks, Chester, Montgomery and Lehigh Counties. And before that, he served 12 years in the Pennsylvania Legislature, including four in the House and eight in the Senate.


LVB: What attracted you to your position?

Gerlach: This GRCA position allowed me a great opportunity to utilize the terrific experiences I had to advance and advocate for important policies during my legislative service as well as lead a dedicated business association team to provide outstanding services and programs to its members. The position seemed to fit my work life over the past 29 years hand in glove, so it interested me greatly. Further, having most of my work weeks in D.C. over the past 17 years, the position allowed me to be back home with family in Pennsylvania full-time, which I absolutely love.


LVB: Berks businesses, like all businesses, are facing unprecedented challenges with COVID-19, what is your organization doing to help?

Gerlach: We have an extremely talented and energetic team active on many fronts. In addition to disseminating all relevant information regarding governmental mandates and programs, we have been serving as a clearinghouse for best practice informational exchanges between and among our members coping with various COVID-related issues. We also continue to facilitate important economic development projects in the county despite the crisis’ impact. Finally, we have helped implement an outstanding personal protection equipment (PPE) production project for our health care workers and emergency responders. Working with Albright College, local school students, and a myriad of material suppliers and donors, the Berks PPE Network is a wonderful example of voluntary civic engagement by caring individuals helping tremendous front-line workers and responders.


LVB: What do you see as the biggest challenges right now? What are you hearing?


Gerlach: Our biggest challenge, like most other business associations, is trying to continue providing great informational and support services to our members at a time when those members are experiencing tremendous financial and loss of business challenges of their own. We will all get through this ordeal for sure. And in the meantime, we will strive to provide the best services and information possible so our business community can bounce back as quickly and strongly as possible.


LVB: Are Berks businesses thinking ahead to when they’ll start reopening?


Gerlach: Yes, our businesses are all chomping at the bit to resume normal activities. And some have taken a very active role in advocating changes to the Governor’s stay at home directives so they can resume activity sooner, especially in the construction, agri-business and manufacturing sectors. So they monitor the news and our updates daily just waiting for the first opportunity to resume business activity.


LVB: What do you think the Berks Business landscape is going to look like a year from now?

Gerlach: Extremely hard to say, and that will likely depend on whether the so-called second wave of the virus hits later in the year, as well as what medical testing and therapeutic interventions are available over the next 12 months to easily test employees for the virus and help them defeat any infection quickly.

Certainly the final chapter on the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t been written yet. But our local and national business community are highly motivated, very adaptable and wonderfully ingenious. So, my bet is widespread testing capabilities, coupled with appropriate workplace practices and effective therapeutic treatments, will be universally implemented and our economy will come roaring back as a result.

By Stacy Wescoe