THIS PLACE MAKES YOU SMILE
FEBRUARY 23rd, 2012
Since the 1990’s downtown Ferndale, a stretch of 9 Mile Road off Woodward Avenue, has been deliberately developing as a Mecca for local entrepreneurs. And because of those resourceful local business owners, the district was developing a vibrancy that was hard to miss. However recently, there was a building right on the corner of 9 Mile Rd. and Woodward Avenue, an anchor location, which was last occupied by an Old Navy retail outlet store. This space was described, in its four-year vacancy, by a representative of the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority as a missing front tooth in the smile that is downtown Ferndale.
Daily, the huge Old Navy space was calling to Tiffany Best as she passed by on her way to work, but it would be a while before she heard that call. Then she and her husband Chris were taking a hard look at their current job situations and decided they could do better, and truthfully they both felt they were on the brink of being laid-off. Tiffany was working part-time in landscaping and in a hair salon supporting stylists by sweeping hair. While Chris was working construction, a job that he liked, but there was very little job security in building high-end homes in the Detroit-area given the current economy.
The couple started to dream about creating a space for artists to display and sell their wares. “It didn’t really start with a market model,” said Tiffany. “We kept going to art festival after art festival, including the ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, and on the long drive home we kept asking the question… ‘What could we do that captures the essence of an art fair and still provide stability for ourselves and vendors?’…the ah-ha moment was the market.”
It took the couple three months of steady work to write and perfect their business plan and scour the area looking at spaces in high-end locations like Birmingham. And while Tiffany was driving past the Old Navy store space daily, the couple’s sights were set on a much smaller space. “Finally, I decided we should at least look at the space,” said Tiffany.
Plans were presented, a deal was made and by May of 2011 The Rust Belt Market was open for business in Ferndale, Michigan. Open only on Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 7pm, the Rust Belt is described by its creators, as homage to Midwestern creativity and ingenuity. Chris and Tiffany Best describe their vendor mix as those artists delivering original works of art (no reselling) and/or vintage collections for sale. On the day of our visit, Super Bowl Sunday, the Market was buzzing with excitement. HGTV had contacted one of the vendors, J. Kyle Keener of Keener Vision, to do a piece for the popular Detroit-based show called Cash and Cari, featuring estate sale guru Cari Cucksey. Keener describes his unique creations as art from found objects that require you to have a tetanus shot to work on. On this day he was working on fabricating a lamp with rusty cast-off industrials parts.
The HGTV host and a film crew cruised the market for additional feature stories before they got to Keener. They made a stop at Kelli’s Vintage booth. After just a few minutes, Kelli had made a sale to Cari (a full length, vintage, red leather coat) and had a nice conversation that just might end up on HGTV.
The Bests are particularly proud of the Market’s ability to create a steady revenue stream and source of employment for their vendors, last estimated at 65 people. There is a theme among many of the vendors. A theme of loss and redemption; lost jobs, replaced by the chance to incubate a new artistic business at The Rust Belt Market are common.
Consider Chris Gorski, a graphic designer with a job at Detroit-based ad agency Campbell-Ewald. There was a day that he saw the writing on the wall; he knew was going to lose his job when Campbell-Ewald lost the Chevrolet account. “My family loves Chevys,” claimed Gorski. “And since I was already selling original design t-shirts out of the back of my truck, I decided to buy a short bed Chevy step van to open up a business called Detroit GT. I bought Little Leo (his name for the van, after his grandfather) sight unseen from Craig’s List and had it shipped here from Wisconsin.” Chris and Tiffany contacted Gorski and asked when he was going to bring the van down and move it inside the market. Little Leo has been a Rust Belt Market mainstay every weekend since last spring.
For every vendor there is a great story, stories that will make you smile and objects for sale that will delight you. Photographers finding the beauty in a city where others see only decay; artists inspired by everyday objects transformed; textiles, paintings, musical instruments from cigar boxes, wood crafted one-of-a-kind gifts… are all part of the mix. Even the coffee vendor at the Rust Belt Market will make you smile. Henrietta Haus Coffee Roasters adds a creative bent to the presentation of coffee service from their artistically funky sign to a display of ‘not-for-sale’ quirky found objects.
Through all of their efforts, which the couple describe as a 24/7 job, success is the “Best” word to describe their efforts at creating the space for artists. “Make no mistake, we were terrified when we started this project,” confides Chris Best. “But we have a vision for this space that propels us forward.” For the future, the couple hopes to continue to refine the space design and help their vendors improve their marketing and presentation. “You know you must be doing something right when people come to you with questions about franchising your ideas,” said Chris Best. “While nothing has come of those discussions yet, it is good to know that people are noticing, and that makes us smile.”