Trains and tomatoes

Given the political debate that has embroiled the Hiawatha light rail system, it is easy to forget why the $675 million project was approved in the first place: to give area commuters and visitors traveling from the southern metro area an alternative mode of transportation. Besides this direct benefit, state and local officials are hopeful that the project will produce several indirect benefits. Two of these – a reduction in the growth of traffic congestion along the Crosstown and Hiawatha Avenue corridors, and an improvement in local air quality in the south metro area – should be realized soon after the system’s opening. A third – development along the system’s corridor, which includes Minneapolis’ troubled Phillips neighborhood – has, to this point, not come to fruition. But there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Several southern Minneapolis community groups have come together to initiate the development process along the corridor. Beginning this July a large farmer’s market, operated by local community members, will begin to sell locally grown food and locally produced art on the corner of Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue – one of the 17 stops on the light rail line. Initially, the market will only be open Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings from July 12 to Oct. 29. However, the market’s advisory board plans to make the market a permanent operation that will serve as a shopping space, neighborhood landmark and tourist destination. Not only will the market spur economic development in a depressed area of south Minneapolis, but it will give people incentive to ride the light rail and stop to shop on their trips between downtown and the southern suburbs.

The market’s organizers should not be accused of thinking small; their ultimate vision is to create Minneapolis’ version of Seattle’s Pike Place Market or Philadelphia’s Firehouse Farmer’s Market – unique shopping institutions that attract wide swaths of people. Hopefully, government officials and other community groups will follow suit by developing other unique projects spurred on and supported by the light rail system. It is these unique economic development opportunities that will prove the full worth of the very expensive light rail project. It is these unique development opportunities that hopefully will convince Minnesota legislators to reject Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s plan to severely reduce the state’s support of the light rail system, opening up new avenues of community as it opens up new corridors of transportation.