By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- When asked to describe the growth of the Ybor City Fresh Market, supporter Bob Keeble prefers to say it's "slow cooking" rather than slow growing.
"Like good barbecue," said Keeble, who sits on the market's board of directors.
But one key ingredient is still missing: local farmers.
A vendor or two might sell produce secondhand, but they don't grow it. And often, the fruits and vegetables they're hawking aren't grown in the area.
That makes the market incomplete, said Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt, who spearheaded its formation four years ago.
"Getting more local producers is critical," Platt said. "When you call it "Ybor Fresh,' the public expects that to be the case."
But even some supporters doubt it will happen.
The Saturday market was launched in Ybor's Centennial Park to draw visitors to Ybor City and to showcase local farmers and craftsmen.
But on a typical Saturday, only 500 to 700 people show up. That's about half the number supporters want.
"It's still a secret," Keeble said.
Visitors can buy orange blossom honey to slather on fresh-baked bread, or homemade hot sauce to drizzle on deviled crab.
They can stock up on body scrubs or take home a hand-spun shawl. They can even adopt a greyhound.
"I got earrings. I got soap and lotion," said Anne Belcastro, who drove over from St. Petersburg on Saturday with her husband, Tim.
Still, they were disappointed. They didn't find the mounds of produce they expected.
When the market opened in March 2000, it did have a few farmers. The 30 or so vendors included two organic growers and a man who sold fresh fish.
But the fish peddler quit after a divorce, and the organic growers gave up for personal and financial reasons, said Keeble, who also directs the Arts Council of Hillsborough County.
Supporters try to entice new farmers by talking with them directly and advertising in farm publications. So far, no luck.
Some say there aren't many small growers to begin with because so much land outside Tampa is carved up between subdivisions and corporate farms.
And many of those growers prefer to sell at roadside stands.
"They're already busy enough where they are," said market board member Stephen Gran, who manages Hillsborough County's agriculture industry development program.
Market manager Rick Janson said he has wondered whether the market's name should be changed to "Ybor City Gift Market."
"I want them," Janson said of farmers. "But I've come to realize I'm never going to get them."
Others said farmers will come once more customers do.
It's a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.
Until farmers see more people showing up in Centennial Square, they won't risk setting up shop. But more visitors won't come until they see more variety.
Despite growing pains, supporters insist visitor numbers are rising, though no surveys have been commissioned to check that.
The numbers dipped after the initial splash two years ago, then bottomed out when the market briefly moved from the park to Centro Ybor.
When asked Saturday how things were going, John Moore shot back: "Not well yet."
Moore, from Largo, sells live bamboo, beer mugs and pottery.
But other vendors said special events, such as quarterly arts-and-crafts shows and Saturday's ornamental plant show, are bringing people in.
"We've finally found that right combination," said Kathy Berlincourt, who has been selling shawls for two years.
Other trends might help.
New apartments and condominiums are bringing new residents to Ybor. Ybor's first Bikefest last weekend brought thousands of visitors.
The city's streetcar line to Ybor is expected to bring more visitors, too. It debuts in two weeks.
Janson said farmers would help, but the market can live without them. "Aside from the heat," he said, "I wouldn't change anything."
-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or email@example.com.
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