Escondido officials are exploring a proposal to transform an empty downtown furniture store into a large market hall with more than 100 vendors selling fresh vegetables, meats and gourmet products daily.

Supporters say the project, the first of its kind in San Diego County, would become a regional attraction and quickly spur dramatic upgrades throughout the surrounding area.

The proposed market, which has been compared to the Pike Place market in Seattle, might also attract foodies to the area and create new opportunities for local farmers and wineries.

“We’d be really excited to have something big and lively,” said Thora Guthrie, chief executive of the Downtown Business Association.

But some have criticized the finances of the proposal, which would force the city to spend more than $4 million buying the H. Johnson Furniture building and then provide a sweetheart, 20-year lease to the private developer who would build the new market hall.

“It’s an awesome idea if city taxpayers didn’t have to fund it,” said City Councilwoman Marie Waldron, who owns a T-shirt shop one block from the proposed site. “The city needs to make good business decisions, not emotional ones.”

Critics also question whether the market hall might become overwhelming competition for existing downtown businesses, and whether the concept might be less successful in Escondido than it has been in Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia.

A downtown catalyst

Plenty of projects have been proposed for the H. Johnson site at Second Avenue and Broadway since the furniture store closed during summer 2007. But none has generated as much excitement as the market hall proposed recently by Idaho entrepreneur Mark Rivers.

Jo Ann Case, the city’s economic development manager, said last week that the market hall could be the kind of catalyst downtown has needed.

“If it’s built with the scale and quality proposed, it could be a great attraction,” said Case, suggesting the market hall could draw people from across the region. “These kinds of projects are vibrant, exciting and lots of fun.”

Councilwoman Olga Diaz said the market hall seems like a great solution for the 31,000-square-foot H. Johnson building, which has proved too large to fill with only one tenant.

Rivers has proposed razing the building and replacing it with a 50,000-square-foot marketplace featuring “100 blue-chip vendors of fresh food, artisan and gourmet products.” His proposal says the market would “replicate an epicurean European facility with a local flair and inspiration.”

Diaz said the project would create 100 new business and dozens of full-time jobs, while also providing downtown with a “beautiful anchor and destination.”

Rivers, the developer, said in a phone interview last week that market halls are tremendous economic development tools that carry low risk for cities.

Rivers, who was named Idaho “visionary of the year” in 2006 for a redevelopment project in downtown Boise, said the market hall could be built in less than a year because the construction is relatively simple. If Escondido rejects the idea, Rivers said he may explore other venues in San Diego County.

Taxpayer subsidies

Waldron and Councilman Sam Abed don’t dispute the appeal of a market hall, but both said they would be unlikely to support the project because it requires subsidies.

The council has been considering whether to buy the H. Johnson site because of its strategic location in the heart of downtown, but previous proposals have included a parking structure with condos or offices above.

Waldron said she’d rather see the city stick with that approach. But Abed said the city should give up on buying the site entirely, because the recession has reduced city reserves from $40 million to less than $20 million.

“We don’t have the money any more to talk about H. Johnson,” Abed said. “We can’t move forward with no money. We’re done.”

He also questioned the lease proposed by Rivers, which would provide the city $50,000 per year. Abed said $500,000 per year would be closer to market rate.

“This project would not provide the return on investment that taxpayers should demand for their money,” Abed said.

Waldron and Diaz said the city could leverage future redevelopment revenues to buy the H. Johnson site.

But Waldron said it would be unfair to subsidize the market hall when the city has rejected requests from other developers. She said examples include a developer proposing a Marriott hotel for La Terrazza Boulevard and a developer seeking city help to finish a half-built apartment complex at Third Avenue and Escondido Boulevard.

Rivers said, however, that market halls are always subsidized because they are private-public partnerships.

“Not a single city where these have been built would let their market hall go,” Rivers said.

Call staff writer David Garrick at 760-740-5468.

This would help promote healthier food choices and be a great thing for the ‘slow food’ movement.

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