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INDIANAPOLIS — Pre-pandemic, mid-day at the Indianapolis City Market meant standing in line for food and then searching for an empty table to sit and enjoy lunch.

Thursday at high noon, the market was virtually empty with only an occasional customer walking the center aisle.

“This is a safe place to visit, and we are reminding people that we are still open even if you can throw a bowling ball down here,” said Executive Director Keisha Gray.

City Market is, once again, at a crossroads of determining its role in downtown Indianapolis for itself, the city and its clientele.

“This place needs a massive overhaul outside and inside, but from everything I’ve ever heard, management and City Market as an organization just doesn’t have that kind of financial backing,” said Ross Hanna, who has operated Twenty-Two Juice Bar for eight years. “I hope that Union Station is not the fate of City Market.”

The City Market opened in 1886. Union Station opened two years later. They are iconic 19th century sibling architectural public landmarks in downtown Indianapolis.

In the 1980s, Union Station was reimagined as a festival and marketplace with public spaces, food vendors and merchants, but by the mid ’90s, the opening of Circle Centre nearby doomed the century-old but structurally sound building to commerce.

The City Market hosted a thriving food court for decades but fell on hard times in the spring of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown combined with ruinous downtown civil unrest and a construction project that has closed Market Street outside its front door, baring what few potential customers still work downtown from stepping inside.

The Market Street pedestrian promenade project is slated for completion by the end of the year, just about the same time a large portion of the market’s customer base begins to pull up stakes and head to the Twin Aire community on the near east side. That’s where the Community Justice Center is gradually opening as the ribbon will be cut on the Marion County Jail and sheriff’s office, depriving downtown of hundreds of daily sheriff’s employees and inmates’ relatives who have traditionally visited the historic food court.

“There is a rich history about this particular building, and there are people who love that about us,” said Gray. “We’re not trying to be the newest and shiniest thing. We are here, and we’ve been here for a very long time, and it is ingrained in peoples’ lives.”

Austin Bonds has spent a dozen years serving up Maxine’s Chicken & Waffles based on his grandmother’s classic family recipe at an East Street restaurant bearing his grandmother’s name.

This spring, faced with a fall off in dine-in business, an aging building and a changing neighborhood that intimidated customers coming to the front door, the Bonds’ family moved its eatery into prime first floor City Market space, just inside the front door in a location left empty by the departure of longtime vendor Circle City Sweets.

“We were kind of wanting to stay in the downtown market because we already established clientele downtown,” said Bonds, “and then I think they’re rebuilding downtown, building a lot of apartment complexes and condos, and they’re trying to get everyone to move back downtown.

“With the convention center and the hotels, we have a hub down here where people are starting to come back, and they do different events like conventions and things like that so we wanted to be like a tourist spot downtown.”

Bonds said his first month at the market was boosted by catering sales to college teams secluded in hotels during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

“I think the city is gonna keep putting money into the building,” said Bonds, who has fielded inquiries from other small business owners about the availability of space in the City Market. “I think it’s just time for a change, for new vendors to come in and see what’s going on.”

Gray, who arrived in Indianapolis last fall from her previous position at a southside Chicago library district, said it’s her job to retain the historical nature of the site while working alongside the City Market Board of Directors to determine a strategic vision for long term viability.

“We are taking a very careful approach with who we let in to be a merchant because we want people to understand the full extent of what is happening because we don’t want anyone to start a business here and sink their life’s work into it and not be successful,” she said. “So every day, and almost every week, I have people reaching out to me because they see the opportunity and value of being in a space like this. So I’m confident that we will fill the spaces. It’s just gonna take us some time to do so because we’re going to be careful.”

At least nine spaces inside the market are vacant compared to the 24 tenants listed on the building’s website, though those also include the YMCA, with a lease agreement expiring next year, and other organizations leasing office space.

Gray said the market board will begin discussions Monday on the proposal to permit struggling vendors to exit their leases early without penalty.

Hanna said that he has no plans to move from the market, though he wonders what an opt-out lease option will mean for business.

“The fact that that’s offered is wonderful. However, as a tenant who is choosing to stay, I do question how that is going to impact me indirectly because if this place becomes even more empty than what it is currently, that could be a huge deterrent for customers wanting to visit the City Market because nobody wants to go to a place where the action isn’t there or where the action isn’t present because the people don’t want to be present either.”

Gray said it will be up to market board to decide what it wants to be and who it is serving.

“During our strategic planning process, we will be figuring out who our customers are, and its just not the workers who have been here, it is the residents, it is visitors coming into town to see us and understand what this place means to the history of Indianapolis.”