Return of the State Farmer's Market

New plans could resurrect the market's former glory

Years ago, the Atlanta State Farmers Market, 10 minutes south of Atlanta in Forest Park, was a bustling bazaar and a weekend watering hole worthy of hours of idle time.

These days, with 146 acres and 576 open-air stalls, the farmer's market is the largest in the country and remains one of the biggest crop distribution hubs for the Southeast and the Eastern Seaboard. But decades of shifting demographics and more convenient shopping options have made the market far less popular than it once was. Hundreds of semis coming and going don't make the grounds very walkable, the vendors are few and far between, and a visit to the popular Thomas' Restaurant on the market's grounds involves crossing the paths of 18-wheelers.

Those are but a few of the challenges planners bent on resurrecting the market will have to overcome.

The renovation project calls for building a 50,000-square-foot enclosed market for Georgia-grown fruits, vegetables and flowers. Planners of the new building also want it to house a bakery, meat market, seafood counter, and specialty coffee, cheese and wine shops — just like in an international style bazaar.

The project is still mainly in its planning stages, and it's gained the support of a wide coalition, including the city of Forest Park, Clayton County, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the state Department of Industry Trade and Tourism, and the state Department of Agriculture.

"You got to realize we've got a facility there that's been tremendously successful," Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin says. "But it's nearly 50 years in existence, and it's time to have some energy pumped back into it.

"I think it's got great possibilities."

As CL went to press, the project's proponents were waiting to hear whether they would receive a $65,000 Ford Foundation grant for studying the market's feasibility, which could open the door to a $250,000 construction grant and the groundbreaking of the new market.

Irvin estimates that it could cost $5 million to renovate the market, and he says he'll try to squeeze that money out of the governor and the General Assembly.

The redevelopment project does have several things going for it. The broad agency support it's already received is one of its top advantages. And several other projects set for the area will give it a boost. The biggest one is the proposed mixed-use transit village in Forest Park that will accompany the Atlanta to Macon commuter rail, scheduled for completion in 2006.

Planners hope to link the market with the commuter rail stop. They're also talking to officials at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport about joining the market with the new international terminal, or fifth runway, via an automated train, tram or monorail. If that happens, the market would also be reachable by MARTA.

Dozens of other projects appear set to transform parts of south Fulton, Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties into major business and residential centers — but without the sprawl. For years, leaders on the south side of the Perimeter have looked at Marietta, Lawrenceville and other areas on the north side and seen those traffic-clogged streets and cul-de-sac golf course communities as examples of what not to do. They wanted growth, they just didn't want it so haphazard and hurried.

"The north side has gotten all of the growth," says Robin Roberts, Clayton County's assistant director of economic development. "Well, we're planning on the folks who move around here to have live-work-play environments and transporta-tion options.

"We haven't hit a brick wall yet. And as long as that doesn't happen, we're going for it."