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Citizen Placemaker: Sarah Ordover on Building Local Culture Around Food

Sarah Ordover speaks at the opening of the NewBo City Market; to her right sit Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett / Photo: Sarah Ordover

In our Citizen Placemaker series, we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds (the more traditional haunts of Placemakers) whose work exemplifies how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.

Sarah Ordover is the founder of the NewBo City Market, a new public market that opened October 27th in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We worked with Sarah on a feasiblity and site selection plan for NewBo, and checked back in with her recently to chat about her experience with getting the market up and running, and how food is helping small towns like Cedar Rapids to re-establish a sense of place.


Why don't we start off by talking a bit about the community of Cedar Rapids?

Well, I'm originally from New York, and my background is in marketing. I moved to Iowa in 1989 for a job, and I didn't know a soul. My first night in Cedar Rapids was a beautiful Saturday in August, and I decided to go out and explore, looking for nightlife, someplace where people hang out. I didn't know the first thing about the city, but there's a riverfront, and I thought, 'I'll just go down to the river, there's always something going on by the river.'

So, I started driving up and down the river looking for signs of life, and there was nothing going on. I went back to my hotel and I thought, 'Ok, I'll try again tomorrow.' I spent the next couple of weeks trying to find the center of town and find where life happened. Eventually, I realized that Cedar Rapids is a wonderful community, but that it was missing a central congregating spot, the place someone like me could go to meet people and find camaraderie.

That's a story that a lot of people are familiar with, where they're in a town and there's no there there, as the saying goes. What inspired you to actually get involved in changing that?

In 2008, Cedar Rapids had a big flood. Before that, there had been the beginnings of an arts district called New Bohemia along the riverfront. New Bohemia was in the very early stages of development, but then the neighborhood was wrecked by the flood. At the same time, one of the concerns that people who are interested in healthy eating, like myself, had was that there was little year-round access to healthy or specialty foods. If you wanted to get anything other than regular supermarket fare, you had to go to a food co-op in Iowa City, which is about 25 miles away.

Shortly after the flood, some girlfriends and I were having our standard conversation: "When are we going to get a Trader Joe's? Will the New Pioneer food coop ever move to Cedar Rapids? Etc." As a marketing person, I understood that our demographics weren't such that we'd be at the top of anybody's list for expansion. But Cedar Rapids did already have a fantastic farmer's market downtown, with 150-200 vendors of all different kinds; food, arts, crafts, and 15,000-20,000 visitors each Saturday it was held.

My friends and I started talking about the downtown farmers market, and how fun that was, but that it was really needed in the middle of January when people were looking for things to do. It operates on eight Saturdays in the summer. There had been a proposal for the riverfront, River Run, that had included a year-round farmers market, and the conclusion of the conversation with these girlfriends was, "Hey, Sarah, why don't you go see who's working on the year-round farmers market?" I figured I'd make some phone calls, see who's working on it, and get on whatever committee it was. Well, it turned out there was nobody working on it.

Is that something that you are prone to do? To see that something's not happening and to just say, "You know what, no one's running this, I'm going to step up and do it"?

Yes; I'm an entrepreneurial person. I love starting businesses, but I had never done anything like this before. I'd been on nonprofit boards, but I'd never started a nonprofit or done any fundraising. And I'd never worked with governments before. But sometimes, ignorance is the best way to go forward, because you don't have any preconceived notions about how something should be done, or whether it can even be done or not.

"In Iowa, the idea of a Public Market is new; it's not a museum, it's not the symphony, it's not a theater." / Photo: Amber

Do you have advice for people who are interested in getting more involved in their communities, but don't have that same entrepreneurial spirit?

One of the things I have to say that I did pretty well was learn, and listen to people. I just went to everybody I could think of for advice, help, mentoring. One person would introduce me to somebody else. A number of influencers got excited about the idea, people within the community who had clout. I, of course, had noclout. I was not a community insider. But they were able to help point me in the direction of the first few steps and use their own influence to open doors. There was a guy who was running a nonprofit that was looking at how to redevelop the New Bohemia neighborhood, who introduced me to his board, and they introduced me to people, so it just becomes this exponential power, if you're willing to be open and make those connections.

The other thing is that I put together a board of directors that represented all of the different organizations that were necessary to be a coalition that would legitimize the idea. I find that a lot of people who are in the food movement, or who are involved with Placemaking, get very insular with who they're talking to. As a business person, some of the first people I sought out were from our Downtown District organization, the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. I understood that, if this was going to be accepted, it had to be accepted by a broad swath of the business, government, and nonprofit community, not just people within my own cohort. So the board of directors represented the chamber, the CVB, the city council and other key decision makers.

Building the coalition happened incrementally. I used third party endorsement. My strategy was that if I could get somebody from the Convention and Visitors Bureau to say yes, then I could get somebody from the Chamber to say yes, then from the Downtown District, and so on. In Iowa, the idea of a public market is new; it's not a museum, it's not the symphony, it's not a theater. And I was an unknown, so building a coalition from the stakeholder community was essential to our success.

You just listed off a couple of examples of more familiar revitalization ideas, and they were all "old-school" cultural institutions. Do you see the NewBo City Market as a new kind of cultural center?

You know, when I started with this idea, I got a lot of push back that the market wouldn't work here. New Pioneer, a food co-op from Iowa City, where the University of Iowa is based, tried opening a branch in Cedar Rapids 20 years ago, and that failed, so conventional wisdom was that we didn't have the population to support the concept. But what folks didn't realize about Cedar Rapids was that peoples' consciousness about food and eating has really changed. People of every stripe are interested in food these days. You have the Food Network, and tons of cooking shows. Being a foodie is no longer only limited to those interested in organic cooking.

Food is a cross-demographic link, a common interest that does not know boundaries of age, income, gender or race. Everybody eats. Add to that the rising obesity rate in Linn County and surrounding areas, and there's a real opportunity to create an environment where we can educate them about better eating habits, whiling making good food more accessible in a non-institutional way.