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100 years celebrated at historic city market

NORTH TONAWANDA -- The North Tonawanda City Market celebrated its 100th anniversary two weeks ago with a Dixieland jazz band, a bunch of stuff for children and a horse and wagon parade bearing the guest of honor, Elmer Moje, 95, a Wheatfield farmer who has been a fixture at the market for nine decades.

An honor guard from Stephen Sikora Post 1322, American Legion, raised the Stars and Stripes on the market's new flagpole, which the post had donated.

The centennial was a historic occasion. More than a thousand people filed through the farmer's market at Payne Avenue and Robinson Street during the course of the day, said Mayor Lawrence V. Soos.

"The North Tonawanda market is one of the oldest and among the largest in the state," said Jonathan Thomson, economic development specialist with the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. "It is definitely in the top tier of markets statewide."

"The second 100 years are just beginning," Soos added. "The city market is a vital part of this community, and it is currently going through a renaissance."

To guide the market into its second century, Soos recently appointed Mark Houghton as the new manager. Houghton, a father of six, has a degree in marketing and industrial relations from the University at Buffalo and 25 years of experience as a retail manager.

Niagara Weekend's chronicler grabbed a few minutes out of Houghton's busy schedule last week to learn about the history and future of the city market.

>These are hard times, economically. How's the market doing?

We're booming, especially with the price of produce these days. Fruit and vegetables here cost a half or a third of the price you'd pay in the supermarkets. Word gets around. More than 5,000 people go through here on a Saturday.

>Is it mostly a local clientele?

The majority of customers are from Niagara and Erie counties, but we get many from Buffalo and Batavia and points beyond. A lot of people bring their own shopping bags. We had our own city market shopping bags on sale during the centennial celebration. We encourage people to use shopping bags. Less plastic -- good for the environment.

>What days are you open and how many vendors to you have?

We're here Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The days are arranged to suit the farmers, because many of them go from one market to another during the week. The Niagara Falls City Market, for instance, operates Monday, Wednesday and Friday. About 100 farmers or vendors start arriving here at 6 a.m. and set up their stalls. They're here until about 1:30 p.m.

>How big is this market and how many months of the year do you operate?

The market is bigger than a football field and we're open year round. Even in the dead of winter, with snow everywhere, there are vendors here.

>Do you have any available stalls or are you full up?

We're full to the end of the year. We have over 100 stalls and every single one is rented. They're rented on a yearly basis, although a few are available on a daily basis. The majority of farmers renew their annual leases. We hardly ever have any vacancies.

>What's the story on Elmer Moje, the centennial parade's guest of honor?

Elmer started coming here in 1918 when he was a boy of five. His father would bring him here in a horse and wagon. Then Elmer became a vegetable farmer himself, and he's been a vendor here ever since.

>What does Mayor Soos mean when he said the market is going through a renaissance?

We're making a lot of improvements. The area was totally repaved and restriped to mark each stall. The Sikora Post donated the new flag pole, and we got grant money from [Assemblyman] Robin Schimminger to work on the roof and gutters of the storage building. Many city officials and department heads are working together to spruce up the place, and recognize its historical significance and its importance to the local economy.

>What's the program you have with the North Tonawanda School District?

Elementary school kids were here the day before the centennial celebration, painting pictures that were exhibited the next day. I just had a call from a sixth-grade teacher who wants to bring a busload of kids here to hollow out pumpkins for Halloween. We're working with the school district to have the older students paint murals on the walls of the buildings.

>All this sounds like fun. Were you looking to land this job?

I never thought of working here until I was having dinner at the mayor's restaurant [Soos' Oliver Street Cafe] and he asked me if I'd take it on. I've admired the market as a customer for many years and with my retail management experience, I went for it. I saw it as a good opportunity to help the city. And now I enjoy coming to work. It's a pleasure. I'm learning a lot about how much produce we grow in Western New York. The customers are friendly and outgoing, and the vendors are the salt of the earth. Going to market is like an event.

>You say business is booming. Do you expect it to continue?

Times are tough, but these farmers are selling their produce. They arrive with their trucks and vans full of fruits and vegetables and they leave with much lighter loads. I feel the economy is going to worsen and prices in the supermarkets will continue to increase. Our produce comes straight from the farmer's field. It's fresh, untainted and the price is right.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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