Jon-Claude Stevens, a Jensen Beach baker, happened to be visiting Jacksonville in April 2009 and was one of the estimated 30,000 people to attend opening day of Riverside Arts Market.
He was so impressed by the unique Saturday market under the Riverside Avenue portion of the Fuller Warren Bridge — and the huge crowd it attracted — that he signed up as a vendor. He was there the very next weekend with 200 pastries and 250 breads and sold out in an hour. Subsequent weekends he brought more and more and sold all that too.
“People were hungry for awesome new stuff,” he said.
For every market season Saturday since, he has paid for booth space and driven four hours from Jensen Beach to Riverside to set up shop. His gourmet artisan bakery — JC’s Daily Bread, in partnership with his parents — participates in about 17 similar markets across Florida. Riverside is third in average weekly sales, but first in total annual sales because of its size and long season.
Saturday the market that came to be known as RAM will begin celebrating its upcoming 10th anniversary with plans for a children’s mural project, specially brewed coffee and a focus on agricultural products and longtime vendors.
RAM was designed to be, and remains, a business incubator of sorts for artists and crafters, farmers and other food vendors, with live music and street performers. All products are Florida-grown or created and go through a review process.
Just like founder Wayne Wood envisioned.
THE MAKINGS OF RAM
In 1993 Wood discovered a similar market under the Burnside Bridge in Portland, Ore., while at an optometrists conference. He was exploring the city’s downtown area and came across the weekly open-air Portland Saturday Market, a major statewide tourist attraction that featured handmade food and craft items, live entertainment and all sorts of other goings-on.
“There was a guy in the middle of the street juggling fire,” he said. “There were tons of people.”
Wood thought “it would be fun” to have something like that in Riverside, where he lived and in 1974 founded Riverside Avondale Preservation, a nonprofit known as RAP that advocates for the two historic neighborhoods. He even had a site in mind — vacant space along Riverside Avenue that was targeted as a retention pond in plans being drawn up for a new Fuller Warren Bridge and a new Northbank Riverwalk.
He spent the next 15 years developing a public-private partnership to bring his vision to life. That meant cooperation from the various state and federal agencies in charge of the bridge and the space, as well as City Hall. The process took time. Wood met with four mayors along the way and got the approval of all of them. Then Wood approached the RAP board to adopt the cause.
Doug Coleman was one of those RAP board members.
“Wayne said we’ve got this great opportunity. The [required government] entities have signed onto this, somebody’s got to organize it,” Coleman said. “Everybody loved the idea, nobody wanted to do the work.”
A year passed, Wood returned to the board and urged them to proceed. Coleman volunteered to chair the organizing committee that spent six months working out the details. They were called the Riverside Arts Market Research, Operations and Development committee, or RAMRODS. Coleman, who later founded TEDx Jacksonville, was the “force of nature” the project needed, Wood said.
Ultimately, city and state governments spent $4 million to pave, landscape, electrify and light the site. Opening day was to be April 4, 2009, with the first seasons running through December. In January 2009 organizers called a meeting for prospective participants — they had to be their own producers or makers or growers — and excitement started building.
“Vegetables are art. Songs are art. You are art,” Wood said at the meeting.
The weeks before opening were “unbelievably hectic and exciting,” said Tony Allegretti, the market’s first manager, who also helped found the downtown Art Walk.
“From idea to opening day took so many years — lots of great assets and amenities to the space were in place,” he said. “I was hired only a couple weeks before opening day. It was a major push to get the details hammered out. We had like 1,500 approved artists and 150 spaces each weekend, which meant we had a lot of calls and jockeying for prime spaces.”
He said massive spreadsheets would adorn his office as they attempted to fill in spaces in order of receipt. He said they eventually developed a system like passengers picking an airline seat.
They got as modern as possible. They had Wi-Fi via Mac Tech Pro, “a revelation at the time because it allowed transactions by computer,” Allegretti said. They had a bike valet and “parked a ton of bikes and kept a load of cars off the street.”
“The friendships made when you organize something so amazing is brilliant,” Allegretti said. “I don’t know if there is a place where you can meet that many creative people and small businesses in one place, every week in Florida.”
That first day an estimated 30,000 people visited the market at one point or another.
“When all things aligned, we still had no idea if anybody was going to show up,” Wood said. “It was wonderful. The first day was exactly what I envisioned with one exception.”
He had not imagined “how beautiful it was,” he said. “The canopy of the bridge ... like a Neogothic cathedral.”
Then-Mayor John Peyton helped Wood and Coleman cut the ribbon.
“I thought it was a great plan to get the highest and best use of the space and was a big improvement over the retention pond that was planned for the area,” Peyton said. “It created a destination near our downtown that featured the river, allowed for introduction of the Riverwalk to people who may not have been exposed to it before and was something new and different for Jacksonville.”
He said the market became “one of Jacksonville’s most popular weekend” spots for families, including his.
“I had young children when it opened and would regularly spend time there on Saturday mornings. It was because of the early success that I proposed the floating docks to allow access not only from the roadways, but also from the water,” Peyton said. “Today it continues to be a great destination and plays an important role for our arts and cultural community. ... My family does still go when we can. I especially enjoy the opportunity to buy locally-grown, fresh fruits and vegetable at the various stands. We never come home empty handed.”
MORE TO COME
Nearly a decade since, senior market manager John Silveira and market manager Elizabeth Grebe are now running the show with support from Wood and the rest of the RAP organization. Silveira and Grebe joined RAM in 2016.
“You get stagnant if you don’t change,” Wood said. “We need to be continually evolving. It’s up to these two creative people.”
RAM is now year-round, with 80 to 100 participants and an average of 3,500 to 4,000 visitors every week, Grebe said. Some vendors are there every week, others “pop in and out,” she said. About 20 who were there in the beginning still return.
“We take a lot of pride in being a producer-only market, being an advocate of that, [for customers] to know what they’re getting,” Grebe said.
They also take pride in the local-producer aspect. No trinkets or food from overseas will be found at RAM.
“We have to keep ... pushing that message,” Silveira said. “This is the easiest place and best place to get locally produced items.”
Allegretti commended his successors for “curating and establishing thresholds for quality.”
“Knowing your produce and art is local and organic is why so many visitors flock to the event and why so many residents return every week,” he said.
During busy times, such as the holiday season, they “tighten up the aisles” to accommodate more vendors, Grebe said. But having 100 percent occupancy every week “is not sustainable,” she said. “There needs to be ebb and flow.”
Among the new concepts are First Saturday Brews, Arf Barket and highlighting emerging artists, “anything to make a community where people want to be a part of it,” Grebe said.
“You’re not just selling broccoli, you’re selling an experience,” Silveira said. “You’re not selling arts, you’re selling the experience.”
The future footprint of the market may change, depending on the outcome of state plans to expand the Fuller Warren Bridge and the possible extension of the Northbank Riverwalk. There may be additional space possible on the other side of Riverside Avenue, stretching to the Riverside Dog Park.
Coleman said he is excited by such prospects. He envisions a “loop” connecting the market with Five Points and an extended riverwalk.
“I keep hoping it would grow,” he said.
Allegretti, who now runs the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, expects RAM to have a long life.
“It will always be a beacon and attract great staff, great content providers and great volunteers,” he said. “I used to tell people, if you can’t find the art you want, and band isn’t playing your tune, and the multiple food options can’t cheer you up, just go sit by the river and watch for dolphins. If all that doesn’t improve your quality of life, check your pulse.”
“It’s still here,” he said of RAM, marveling at the thought. “It’s wonderful that its successful. I am totally pleased with it. One of North Florida’s greatest assets.”