Note: An earlier version of this article was published in the Boise Urban Magazine app on May 18, 2015
Author: Tabitha Bower/@TabithaBower
The Boise International Market
A group of belly dancers draped in brightly colored silks and linens dance in smooth rhythmic patterns on a small, risen stage as onlookers feast on international cuisine and browse stands displaying worldwide goods, groceries and crafts. What was once an abandoned building on the Bench, partially charred by fire, is now home to a melting pot of ethnic foods, goods and services.
The Boise International Market, located at 5823 W. Franklin Road, officially opened for business in October of last year. On April 25, the market welcomed the community to a grand opening celebration. Locals packed the market, basking in the cultural food offerings and entertainment including African drum performances, flamenco lessons and origami demonstrations.
“This is an unbelievable day; this represents so many good things about the City of Boise,” said Mayor Dave Bieter at the grand opening event.
Currently, Boise International Market is home to 23 new businesses ranging from global restaurants and produce markets, to dance studios and beauty salons.
However, the market’s diverse offerings go far beyond food, products and entertainment. The market itself is fostering community growth by offering new businesses the tools and services they need to start up in Boise.
“You get great economic and entrepreneurial opportunities that this allows these folks to have,” Bieter said. “You can’t really do any better than this … It’s such a vibrant, full and unbelievable place.”
A public space with an international feel
Before the market was filled with the vivacity of bustling new businesses, it began with two people and a common passion.
Co-owners Lori Porreca and Miguel Gaddi, both urban planners, had a shared interest in community sustainability and a vision for a public market space in Boise.
“I have always been fascinated with public spaces and public life,” Porreca said. “Markets are a core part of communities. They’re central to commerce and social activity and many communities around the world have public spaces.”
While Porreca said she finds immense value in traditional local farmers markets, she and Gaddi wanted to create a public space with an international feel.
“We both, having lived abroad and worked in other places, really missed the opportunity to be in a place where you have people from all over and that vibrancy of public plazas and space,” Porreca said.
The pair began testing the market by discussing their idea with community members and individuals who were interested in starting their own businesses.
Not only was Porreca impressed by the amount of talent and skill present in the Treasure Valley, she also recognized a common need: a space for startup businesses.
“Incubators tend to be more tech-focused or not necessarily for retail,” Porreca said. “What we were trying to do is a combination of providing startup support for retail businesses, but also create a public market environment that would have vibrancy.”
The Ideal Place for a Market
Two and a half years in the making, Porreca says the market is still building toward becoming a space with a constant feeling of vibrancy.
To create this liveliness, Porreca and Gaddi worked directly with community members to find out what they wanted out of a public space.
“We met with Cecilia and Chad Rinn (of Starbelly School of Dance) early on when this place was just a dark space of holes and nothing,” Porreca said. “They gave us some really great feedback about what would make a space work for their business.”
Taking this feedback, Porreca and Gaddi were able to create a space specifically tailored to the needs of businesses.
“At the same time we were trying to build partners and working with the city,” Porreca said. “We started working with some of the small business development organizations like META (Microenterprise Training & Assistance) and others that cross in our interests.”
In addition to building partnerships and fine-tuning their business model, the duo also had to find a space to physically build the market. After nearly a year of searching they came across the current location on the Boise Bench, which had previously sat vacant for five years.
Through thoroughly researching the area’s traffic patterns, demographic and location in relation to other businesses, the duo decided they had found the ideal site for the market.
“As we started to get into the research we made connections to the communities here like Borah and the Central Bench Neighborhood Association,” Porreca said. “They were so passionate about the community here that we felt like this was a good location because the community would support the market.”
From there, renovations and recruiting began. With the groundwork set, it was time to for Porreca and Gaddi dive in to the reality of running an international market business incubator.
Boise International Market overcomes challenges
Bringing people from all over the world to work together in one space can present some challenges.
“Everyone has very different experiences and backgrounds,” Pores said. “We’re asking them all to work together, and that’s a challenge.”
Outside of the internal challenges of running an international market also come the challenges of introducing a new concept to the community. According to Porreca, in the early stages of presenting the market many assumed it would be similar to a farmers market.
“There has been a lot of education about what we are trying to do,” Porreca said.
Unlike farmers markets, where local food and goods vendors set up for a set timeframe, businesses in Boise International Market are permanent. Their locations are set and they run their businesses daily.
From a building code perspective, what the Boise International Market was creating was completely new to the city. With a strong partnership and communication, the market and the City of Boise have been able to work through all of the specifics.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion along the way about how to make this vision a reality and still meet all of their requirements and regulations,” Porreca said.
The largest challenge, according to Porreca, has been creating a project that is sustainable, both in terms of community and financially.
“It can be challenging to trying to find ways to create that vibrancy with lots of cultural events and music, and supporting that while you are also supporting all of these businesses,” Porreca said.
The market offers startup incubation
The market’s unique offerings don’t end with the businesses located inside. As a business incubator, they are also doing things a bit different from the norm.
Unlike incubators that commonly focus on scalable or tech-based startups, the market’s incubation services are focused to retail and food industry startups.
Their focus is not so much on mentoring and offering office space, as traditionally offered by many incubators. Instead, the market helps these startups through the logistical processes of building their business in an affordable way.
“A lot of what we do is help with the build out, the design, the permitting and the coordination,” Porreca said. “For people who are new to starting a business, that side of it can be really overwhelming and challenging.”
META, who rents a space in the market, also helps resident businesses develop their business model plans and offers business-oriented trainings.
With all of the businesses working under one umbrella, the market is able to offer reduced costs to new business owners, further reducing risk.
“So many businesses fail, and our idea was not that you might not fail here; you might fail,” Porreca said. “Our hope is that we reduce the risk enough and take it up as a market, so if you fail you aren’t losing everything you ever had and you can pick up and continue on.”
Aside from offering reduced costs, Porreca and Gaddi assist the businesses with development through events and marketing. Porreca meets with business owners on a regular basis to determine their needs, and connects them with resources within the community to meet needs they aren’t personally able to fulfill.
“It’s a partnership; it’s not so structured,” Porreca said. “We try to figure out where the needs are and who can meet them best.”
Filling the market
When it comes to recruiting businesses to fill the market, Porreca looks for someone with a unique idea first.
“We try to make sure no businesses are overlapping so they don’t compete with each other,” Porreca said. “They also have to have that entrepreneurial spirit; a lot of people want to start a business, but it takes a lot of work.”
The application process helps businesses interested in opening in the market set their objectives and goals. This includes having the entrepreneurs answer questions about how they will sustain their business for a set amount of time, how they will operate on a day-to-day basis, and other factors such as childcare and alternative income.
“We try to help people work through those details up front so they can be more successful,” Porreca said.
Now that Boise International Market is bustling with new businesses and open to the public, Porreca says her favorite part is sitting back and watching the community enjoy the market’s diverse offerings.
“Just to see this place being vibrant and to see some of these people who have been trying to start a business for years on their own, and to see them actually succeed and be happy is really satisfying,” Porreca said.