On a sweltering, sticky summer day, the Ybor City Saturday Market still draws a crowd to Centennial Park.
Vendors are spread across the park’s brick courtyard selling handmade jewelry, art, clothing, furniture, candles, soaps, lotions, banana bread, organic fruit drinks, iced coffees, dog treats and much more. The variety seems endless at this weekly showcase event for local artists, artisans and makers.
“I always say it’s an incubator without walls,” says Lynn Kroesen, the market’s long-time executive director. “That’s the real goal of the market, to serve as a launching pad for a small business, or help others who want to supplement their income, or explore their hobby to see if they can make a business out of it.”
Now in its 24th year, the market has grown into an Ybor City institution and the longest-running outdoor market of its kind in the Tampa Bay region. It’s reached its capacity of 75 vendors and has another 50 on a waiting list.
Even in the heat and humidity of late June, there’s a crowd. A pair of Ybor residents, Chris and Maria, walk their dog Francisco to the market regularly. They get banana bread from The Happy Baker, iced coffee from Pour Decisions Coffee and pick up dog treats for Francisco.
“You tend to see the same vendors and the same people,” Chris says. “And the same dogs. Honestly, I recognize the dogs more than the people.”
Matthew Washington and Tia Romano, both from Panama City, take a ‘selfie’ after buying a cool beverage at the Ybor City Saturday Market.
Tourists staying in Ybor also frequent the market. On a Saturday in late June, a couple of out-of-town visitors snapped photographs of the wild chickens that roam Centennial Park and the side streets of Ybor. Thanks to the TECO Line Streetcar, cruise passengers can also ride over from Port Tampa Bay. Kroesen says the growth of the streetcar and Tampa’s development and population boom have both benefitted the market.
“When our market launched we didn’t have the streetcar,” she says. “So for our first few years, the only way to get there was by car or if you were a resident. And residents back then were few and far between in Ybor City. Now, with the continued growth of the area, with the residential base we are getting, and the streetcar traffic, it’s an all-day experience. We’ve got the streetcar connecting the Sparkman Wharf area and the cruise port to Ybor City and they can ride it for free. It’s a whole experience. They can come shop at the market, eat at restaurants in the community and support local businesses around us, the local coffee shops and cigar shops. It does become an entire experience during the daytime.”
The market also continues to attract local newcomers. Chrissy Larry and Tracy Apata, both of Tampa, saw a social media post about the market and decided to check it out. Larry says they initially expected a farmers market but were impressed by the variety of handmade crafts. Apata sipped a virgin pina colada from vendor Coconut Bar as she walked around.
“It’s important to support small businesses,” she says. “We’re going to walk around and try to support as many as we possibly can.”
A variety of vendors
Susan Hall has been selling handmade jewelry and accessories at the Ybor market for 19 years. With her business ReUsin' By Susan, she specializes in making necklaces, earrings, and bracelets out of recycled and repurposed materials like bottle caps, can tabs, wine corks, maps and nautical charts.ReUsin' By Susan sells earrings and jewelry made from reused and repurposed items.
“I started off doing regular jewelry and I saw a story in a magazine about a lady who paid off all her credit cards and cut them up and made a necklace out of them,” Hall recalls. “I was like, ‘Ohh, I can do that.’ That’s how it started”
Todd Atkinson has only been at the market a few months, selling paintings and custom hand-painted t-shirts featuring geckos, sea turtles and, in a nod to Ybor City, roosters. Like ReUsin' By Susan, Atkinson’s business, Raw Art Creations, focuses on reusing materials, specifically picture frames he finds at yard sales.
“It’s harder to find frames to fit my artwork than to find really good frames and make artwork to fit the frame,” he explains.
Reusing or repurposing materials is a sustainable practice shared by many of the market’s artisans. Joe LaFountain, of Tables by Joe, buys and repurposes furniture from Habitat for Humanity stores to use in his handmade furniture. LaFountain is also an example of another trend at the market, someone who turns their hobby or passion into a side business. He’s a Realtor who started building furniture to give to clients to celebrate a closing.
“I wanted to find a unique gift to give a client at closing and my hobby got out of hand,” he says. “I’m having fun with it. And each week I bring different pieces.”
Allen Pettigrew worked in marketing and communications in the healthcare industry before he felt a calling to do something with his art skills. He started painting and has painted every day since March 2020. His business, AP Art Studio, has been at the Ybor market since May 2021 and specializes in paintings of Black cultural and historic figures.
Trina Thompson and Kai Walton, 6, had some hard choices to make but finally decided on a painting from Allen Pettigrew of AP Art Studio at the Ybor City Saturday Market.
“When I started I was looking for Black art for my house,” Pettigrew says. “I couldn’t find any Black art. That made me say, ‘There’s a need, so I’m going to create my own.’”
Kroesen estimates that 60 percent of the vendors at the market are age 55 and up.
“They are looking for ways to supplement their retirement, as well as ways to enjoy a hobby they weren’t able to do in the past,” she says. “On the other side, we have younger vendors who support their families doing this.”
The Happy Baker, for instance, has been a mainstay at the market for 13 years and the owner’s children have gotten into the business, Kroesen says. Multiple generations of a family from Thailand have operated Aquiser, selling handmade clothing at the market since 2010.
Kroesen points to several more examples of the entrepreneurial spirit carrying on from generation to generation. A vendor sells homemade jellies while her daughter sells lemonade. A mother is an artisan who sells mostly crafts while her seven-year-old daughter sells support bracelets for kids going back to school.
Then, there are businesses like Gulf Coast Sourdough in Seminole Heights, which launched and grew at the market before moving on to greater success at a brick-and-mortar location.
The early years
The Ybor City Saturday Market’s story starts in the late 1990s, when late former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt was impressed with an outdoor market she visited on a trip to Portland. Kroesen says Platt returned to Tampa and approached Art Keeble, the late former long-time executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, with the idea to start a similar market in Tampa. As it turned out, Keeble had once been a vendor at that market in Portland. He went for the idea and planning started in 1998.
The market itself went through changes and struggles in its early years. It opened as the Ybor City Fresh Market in Centennial Park in April 2000. As the original name indicates, the initial vision was a farmers' market selling fresh produce. But Kroesen says that, for business reasons, farmers in the area preferred wholesale sales over selling out of the back of a truck at a local market.
Kroesen has been with the market since that first year. She started as a vendor selling candles and a line of bath and body products and a member of the market’s board of directors. The next year, she became executive director, a post she has held since 2001.
The market shifted its focus to vendors selling locally produced crafts and gifts and changed its name to the Ybor City Saturday Market. But around 2004, there were struggles as a group of about 25 vendors dwindled down to 10 to 12. Kroesen says the market responded by launching a series of special events and festivals like Flan Fest and Festival del Sabor to draw people in. The strategy worked and, with the market again on solid ground attracting customers and vendors, the special events went away.
Post-COVID boom and looking ahead
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the market closed for six months, shifting to a delivery service model to help its vendors generate business. Items that Handcrafts from Laos and Thailand have for sale at the Ybor City Saturday Market include small zippered pouches.
“When we relaunched after being shut down for six months, the vendors just came in flocks,” Kroesen says. “We have had a waiting list of 40 or more since then.”
Looking ahead, Kroesen says the City of Tampa and its Community Redevelopment Agency have started the planning process on the reconstruction and reimagination of Centennial Park. She expects construction to happen in 2025 and says the nonoprofit organization that runs the market will have a lot of communication with the city on that project.
She also notes that more urban farmers and gourmet food vendors have set up shop at the market, fulfilling the original vision of Jan Platt and Art Keeble.
“I think they would both be happy if they were alive today to see it has become both a fresh market and a gift market,” Kroesen says.
For more information, go to Ybor City Saturday Market.