This time last year, niche-market vendors from across the region began making the weekly pilgrimage to Forest Park to peddle locally grown vegetables, desserts and handmade jewelry as participants in the village’s French Market. Every Saturday through late October, proprietors stood ready to greet familiar faces and tempt newcomers with their wares.
Saturday, April 26 marked the official start of the market season, but not in Forest Park. After several trying years during which the open air concession struggled to establish itself, vendors and shoppers will now have to find a new meeting place. The market is closed.
“I was disappointed that it was being cancelled and that it didn’t work out the way everyone had envisioned,” Chamber of Commerce and Development Director Laurie Kokenes said. “It had its merits. It’s just too bad it didn’t work out.”
The 2007 market opened with some promise. It was the first time that vendors gathered at the same location for consecutive seasons, having also used the municipal parking lot at Circle and Madison streets in 2006. Organizers were also able to pull together a larger number of guaranteed vendors compared to the previous year, and Leslie Cahill of Bensidoun USA, the management company responsible for French Markets in the Midwest since 1997, anticipated a strong season.
Working against the market’s growth, however, was the similarly styled Oak Park Farmers’ Market, which first opened in 1976 and once attracted some 7,000 shoppers on a single day, according to that organization’s Web site. Vendors in Forest Park have also had to contend with several venue changes. The French Market debuted here in 2003 at the corner of Elgin and Madison streets, but was relocated the following year to a parking lot that wasn’t clearly visible from the street.
In 2005 no market was held at all.
“When you move things around, that certainly doesn’t help,” Village Administrator Mike Sturino said. “But the fact is it never really took off.”
Though the French Market was also supported by the chamber and various independent businesses, it was the municipality’s decision whether to invite the vendors back in 2008. Notice was sent to Bensidoun in January, said Sturino, that the contract would not be renewed. Forest Park has done well with other seasonal events, namely Summerfest and Groov’n in the Grove, so it makes sense to stick with those strengths, said Sturino. Furthermore, the French Market wasn’t getting rave reviews from the business community.
Several surveys conducted by Kokenes revealed a mix of reactions among proprietors here as to how successful the weekend markets were. Part of the problem, she said, was that expectations varied.
“There were a number of members of the business community that didn’t feel it was successful,” Kokenes said.
Shoppers, too, likely craved a greater variety in the types of vendors that made up the market. Kokenes said that so far this year she’s received only a few inquiries about the lack of a French Market.
“It did serve, I think, as a nice little meeting place for the village,” Kokenes said.
Cahill, the Midwestern representative for Bensidoun, did not return phone calls seeking comment.