The executive director of the North Market has a passionate personality and business know-how that have strengthened market finances and led to an impressive—and controversial—redevelopment plan.
Rick Harrison Wolfe will tell you the unabashed truth. In a recent conversation, the North Market executive director talks about his distaste for college (the academic part, anyway), the frustrating number of times he's been laid off, living in San Francisco (didn't love it), even his response to the naysayers of his ambitious plan to redevelop the beloved public market.
Wolfe is fiercely devoted to the longevity of the institution—and especially to its 34 (soon to be 35) merchants. He wants to do whatever is necessary to make sure this market doesn't end up like its three long-gone Columbus compatriots—East, West and Central markets (lost to fire, foreclosure and a Greyhound station). While it's his job to prepare the market for the future, the Columbus native seems to truly believe in its value as a small business incubator, often mentioning the role the merchants play in nearly all of his decisions—decisions that run the gamut from rent structure, to new hires, to the controversial redevelopment of the market's surface lot into a 35-story tower.
There is a lot at stake with the project, which includes residential and office space that connects to the existing North Market via a two-story atrium. Critics believe the tax break and $1 million from city lawmakers to contribute to the plan is a misuse of tax dollars. Some also lament the loss of the surface parking or dislike the aesthetic of the building. Wolfe feels this pushback, but he doesn't waver in his belief that the redevelopment is good for both the market and the city.
“I think it's great that people care so much about the market,” Wolfe says. “It's very much a soft spot, and I learned it very quickly, but I'm a big boy, and I believe in this project—we believe in this project, the board does, the merchants do. Is it a little scary? Of course, it's a little scary. Progress and evolution [usually are].”
From Fashion to Food
The North Market had been bustling in Columbus for 142 years when Wolfe became part of its history, having come from a career in fashion and a brief, unhappy foray into the food truck industry. After climbing the retail ranks in Chicago and California for nearly 20 years, Wolfe found himself jobless when, in 2009, the Great Recession got the best of Skechers' fashion brands—including Marc Ecko and Zoo York—which Wolfe oversaw. While taking a couple years off, exploring London and visiting his hometown of Grandview, a crazy idea began to percolate.
“I left [Columbus] in '88, and I would have never come back to 1988 Columbus. [But] it was a very different place ... I saw a lot of opportunity. I said, ‘OK, what can I do here?' What I thought would be the easiest route would be L Brands or Abercrombie & Fitch … but no one was hiring. So I bought the food truck.” For one year, Wolfe flipped grilled cheeses in his Cheesy Truck and discovered the food truck life wasn't for him. “I hated it,” he says. “It was just brutal—having a moving kitchen that constantly breaks down [and] labor is tough.”
Upon selling his truck—which can still be seen around Columbus—Wolfe, unemployed once again, began looking for jobs. While he was on the hunt, a friend mentioned an open position at the North Market Development Authority, which became a nonprofit entity in the '80s to support the North Market. Wolfe was familiar with the market, having often purchased ingredients there for his truck. He applied, along with about 400 others, and promptly forgot about it until he received a call. During a preliminary interview, it came up that Wolfe had no nonprofit experience, to which he countered that his big-business experience would be a great asset. When told to come back with a vision for the North Market, Wolfe began chatting with the merchants and listening to their thoughts about market hits and misses. Finally, after surviving several more rounds of applicant winnowings, Wolfe got the gig.
“How Do You Make Money Here?”
When he began his role at the market that is the question Wolfe asked to the North Market Development Authority board. He discovered he inherited a financial situation that was dire—the market had no money in the bank. He knew they needed to address it creatively and the skills he learned in the corporate world became an asset.
“I can't make up for deficits in the finances by charging more rent. Part of the deal is being here with a low market rate for rent,” he explains. “The rent structures were all over the place.”
After devising a new rent structure based on business type—fresh merchants get the lowest rates and prepared foods pay the highest—he moved on to the market's other revenue streams. With 50 percent of revenue coming from rent, 40 percent coming from parking fees and only 10 percent coming from fundraising, Wolfe knew what he needed to focus on.
“For the fundraising thing, [we thought], ‘We need a real plan here.' Most of our fundraising is institutional donors. … The biggest thing is finding more,” Wolfe says. “Everybody gives in this town, every big company gives, but everybody has a ‘lane,' and we're not in everyone's lane. … You have to find the right fit. And we have some great ones; we just need to find more.”
Along with a focus on fundraising, Wolfe stumbled into a new revenue stream—one that has proven lucrative—when Experience Columbus brought a Convention Center prospect through the market to show off the amenities near the center. During the tour, they asked if they could have their opening night event there.
“I said, ‘Sure we can!' She's like, ‘For 2,000 people?' I'm like, ‘Of course we can!' thinking, well, we probably can,” he says. They could. And now they are working on growing this part of business. It works well for the merchants too, who make money when they serve food to attendees.
Securing the Future
Wolfe's grandest idea is also his most provocative. The redevelopment proposal for the market's parking lot has garnered an array of responses, not all of them positive. And the notion—joining a redevelopment to a nonprofit, public market from 1876—is one Wolfe says he's never seen done before. In a conversation with the board about how to secure the future of the market, Wolfe says he “looked at that parking lot, and … [asked], ‘What about expanding the market?' ”
He first floated the idea in an interview shortly after starting as the executive director of the market. The problem was that he hadn't yet spoken to the owners of the lot and of the entire property—the city of Columbus. He says “a couple members of the board were like, ‘What are you doing?' ” When he went to the city to do damage control, he was actually told to lead the charge on a redevelopment if he wanted to.
He explains it this way, “This place survives on one thing—people. And what's better than having people live where this is the amenity?” The redevelopment could, all at once, grow the market's budding events business, keep people coming in, allow for more merchants and make better use of space.
“I think having an open mind about creative uses of that space is exciting,” says Charly Bauer, director of stewardship for Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, a market tenant since 2002. “In an urban environment, we can always create something better for market customers ... than a surface parking lot.”
Wolfe is not really concerned with keeping the aesthetic presented in the initial rendering of the tower, explaining that those things always change, though he does want to “get it right.” He adds that, if you travel to big cities like London or Barcelona—a place he has spent considerable time—you will always see the old mixed with the new. What takes up more of his thinking is making sure the market doesn't become a piece of mere history like the other three. There are no guarantees, he says. And it's not just that the city is great for the market, but that the market is an asset to the city. An economic impact analysis, conducted by Bill LaFayette, an economic advisor and owner of Regionomics, showed that, overall, 83 cents of every dollar spent at the market stays in central Ohio.
“We're doing it for the merchants. We're doing it first and foremost to be sustainable and [have] perpetuity. … If your favorite thing about North Market is that surface lot, I feel sorry for you,” Wolfe says. “Come inside. … We're in the middle of a downtown; we've got 2 million people in the metro area. Surface lots in the middle of Downtown are a travesty.” Although Wolfe does provide a quick word of reassurance about potential parking issues—saying that he knows people need to park and that it is part of the plan—he describes the location of the North Market as the “Park Place” of Downtown, far too valuable to be taken up with rows of surface parking spots.
“I believe the North Market can act as a front door into the community of Columbus,” says Hot Chicken Takeover founder and North Market merchant Joe DeLoss, who sees the market the same way. “I know that's not a task Rick takes lightly. … To tackle a development project of that magnitude, and to do it in a way that honors the experience and the spirit of the North Market, is a really big task. I would be really anxious for that task if it weren't up to Rick's voice and vision on behalf of the market and the tenants in the market.”
Wolfe will tell you he is not the most easygoing guy in the room, but it's clear that a few things he has in spades are a knack for curating North Market offerings, and passion and loyalty directed at the market and its merchants. DeLoss describes Wolfe as a leader with strong vision that has made a tremendous difference for the spirit of the market, even in the short window of time that Hot Chicken Takeover has been on the market's second floor.
And the key to Wolfe's vision is the redevelopment project. “In a couple years when it's done and we have it, [we'll be saying] why the hell didn't we do that 10 years ago?” Wolfe says.***
Q&A with Rick Harrison Wolfe:
How did you make the switch from retail executive to food truck owner?
I had to reinvent myself. What choice was there? … The truck was my rolling resume. There's a lot of things I applied to, a lot of different companies in this town, and I didn't hear a word, so I'm like, “All right, I'm going to do it myself and you will see me and you will notice me.” It was a very expensive rolling resume but it worked out.
What was going through your mind after you sold the food truck?
I was unemployed again. I had been here a year, I'm unemployed again, and it's still tough times, it's 2012. I still had my place in L.A. [so I was thinking] of maybe going back there, but still tough finding work. I was kind of looking anywhere for the right opportunity and I was going to go to the old biz—the fashion biz, and those jobs just weren't there anymore, and they're not now.
What have you learned since becoming executive director of the North Market Development Authority?
I've learned a lot about development—another whole education from this job that I've received. It's very complicated. … You don't just build a high-rise overnight Downtown, with [the North Market] attached to it. There's a lot of planning and strategy. It's a complicated project so it will take longer than most things, but I'm confident we're going to come up with a great project that is good for our merchants. … For the organization, in the long run, it's a win for everyone—the city, the developers.
What is one of your favorite things about the setup of the North Market?
The most exciting time here is when we have a new merchant. People are fired up. … I come from fashion—it's all about newness. You're only as good as this season in fashion, and this place is the same. There are some people I want never to leave, but we need to rotate through. … That's part of the life cycle here. I love that part.
What is it like to work above so many food options?
I will say my pants size is the same from when I started. … I've taken a lot of fish home, taken a lot of bison home; bread from the bakery, cheese. … I share the love with everybody in here.
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.