Atlanta State Farmers Market renovating to keep pace

Georgia’s biggest farmer’s market is getting a multi-million dollar makeover that local officials hope will multiply foot traffic for the facility and bring jobs to Clayton County.

The Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park, which is just a stone’s throw away from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, is getting $10 million from the state and private investors to update vendor stalls, re-arrange the 155-acre property’s layout and improve traffic flow at the facility off I-75. Last year, the state, which owns the market, set aside $5 million for new roofs at the facility.

In addition, a 70,000-square-foot refrigeration building is under construction.

Alejandro Mahecha sorts flowers at a booth at the Atlanta State Farmer’s Market in Forest Park. The facility covers 155 acres with dozens of wholesale operators who sell a variety of items, including produce, Christmas trees and sod. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

icon to expand image

The goal of the investments: Make the market, which hasn't seen a lot of physical changes since it opened more than half a century ago, a south metro destination and create jobs by increasing capacity.

"The market is undergoing the largest one-time improvement since its inception in 1959," said Paul Thompson, the property's deputy director of marketing.

The changes come as the facility looks to remain competitive in the $9 billion national farmers market industry. More than 40 farmers markets operate in metro Atlanta, from Marietta to Peachtree City. Few operate all year like the state's facility, and most are small to moderate in size.

Arguably, the most familiar among them are the Buford Highway Farmers Market and Your DeKalb Farmers Market in Decatur. The DeKalb facility, in particular, is so popular that its owners have for years proposed doubling the size of the facility, though that has yet to happen.

Part of the massive 155-acre Atlanta State Farmer’s Market in Forest Park. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

icon to expand image

The state farmers market, however, stands apart from competitors. While it sells flowers, beef, vegetables, trees and even sod to consumers, it’s mostly a wholesale distribution center that supplies restaurants, grocery stores and other goods sellers throughout the southeast.

That dual role has often made traffic flow difficult as consumers have to maneuver around 18-wheelers trying to pick up or deliver food.

The retooling already has meant change for some of the market's longtime vendors. Those who sell Christmas trees were moved to a smaller spot at the front of the facility to make room for the new refrigeration building.

Kevin Martin, who has been selling trees at the farmers market since the 1980s, said the move hasn’t been as bad as his colleagues had feared.

“ We’ve gotten a lot business because people can see us from the street now compared to where we used to be,” said Martin, who operates Breaking Ground Farm & Nursery in Newnan. “The state has worked hard to help us.”

He said, however, that overall foot traffic at the market as been down in the last few years and that the state needs to step up its marketing game. One idea he has is to build a rustic building that vendors can move into that will make the market stand out from competitors.

“I’ve been telling them that for years,” he said of the need for better marketing. “We need to make this place more family-oriented.”

Tad Majors loads Christmas trees on to a forklift at the Atlanta State Farmer’s Market in Forest Park. The facility covers 155 acres with dozens of wholesale operators who sell a variety of items, including produce, Christmas trees and sod. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

icon to expand image

Students at Clayton State University, who studied ways to improve the facility as a class project, agreed. They said the state farmers market benefits from ample parking, a strong supply chain and an accessible location, but it is dated and it is hurt by a lack of curb appeal. It also needs more variety, stronger marketing, updated technology to reach consumers and should hold festivals to attract more customers.

"Consumers nowadays want to be entertained," said Clayton State marketing professor George Nakos. "They are not going to go to a place just for the food."

State Rep. Valencia Stovall, who represents the area and has held several public meetings to get input on the facility from Clayton residents, said boosting the numbers of supply businesses outside the site is also needed. While a handful of restaurants, food delivery services and food manufacturers have established operations across from the market, she said there can always be more.

“This is about maximizing all the dollars that we can for Clayton County that we haven’t realized in the past,” she said.