Dedicating time to serve the community

Vicki Oppenheim, helps to coordinate the Denton Community Market. (Photo by Ahna Hubnik)Seven years ago, the chances of success for Denton's community market seemed slim.

"We started as an all-volunteer organization with zero money and no location to hold the market," says Vicki Oppenheim, a founding board member and co-coordinator of the Denton Community Market and a graduate student in UNT's Department of Geography and the Environment.

Thanks to the help of dedicated volunteers like Oppenheim and fellow UNT students, faculty and staff, business is booming and the market has grown into a nonprofit organization that provides health-conscious consumers with the opportunity to buy locally sourced goods -- including fresh fruits and vegetables, art, home décor, jewelry and prepared food ― and creates economic opportunities for Denton's artists, businesses and food vendors and producers.

"I love the idea of a place where very small-scale producers can have an opportunity to develop their idea and see how the consumers respond," says Jeff Rous, associate professor in the Department of Economics, who joined the community market in 2014. "We are not exactly a venture capital organization, but we do sort of serve that role in some small way."

Complete with live music, activities for kids and food trucks, the market is a hot spot for Dentonites. This year, the Dallas Observer named it among the best in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and the Denton Record-Chronicle awarded it second place in its "Best of Denton" community event category, second only to the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival. The honors coincide with record attendance and vendor participation. The number of vendors this season has bloomed to 152, making it one of the largest farmer's markets in the North Texas region.

The market grounds also serve as a cornerstone of community engagement in Denton.

"People really do want to feel a part of a community," Rous says. "These days, people lead such fast-paced lives, and human connections seem to be increasingly electronic. The market offers people a place to slow down and actually reconnect with their local community."

Rous and Alexandra Ponette-González, assistant professor of geography, are board members of the Denton Community Market along with Oppenheim, who serves as a co-coordinator of the market with founder Kati Trice. Heather Miller, an administrative assistant in the Department of Economics, is a volunteer coordinator. They help run the market, held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday from April through November in the Denton County Historical Park.

Joining volunteers from throughout Denton, they obtain permits, complete grants for funding, conduct outreach to community organizations, advertise, organize vendors, set up fundraisers, and ensure the food products sold meet standards set by the market and the city of Denton.

More recently, Oppenheim has played a vital role in securing plans for the community market's new home near the Denton County Transportation Authority's A-train rail station in downtown Denton. The site will open in 2017 and allow more space for vendors and seating for visitors, and it also will provide easy train and bus access to the grounds.

Rous draws on his UNT expertise to find ways to help the market thrive.

"As a small nonprofit, we have to try to get as much value as we can out of a limited set of resources," he continues, adding that maximizing value is a core principle of economics.

Oppenheim -- whose original volunteer gig evolved over the years to become a paying position -- uses her geography skills to assist the market with urban planning.

"Geography and economics help shape the vision and ideas on future growth of the market. We are thinking about local food production, small business incubation, and a variety of urban geography and urban economics topics," she says.

In its newest developments, a $77,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped provide upgrades, like visitor seating, a website redesign, equipment, and marketing and community outreach. Additionally, the market began accepting food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- allowing a new crop of customers to buy food.

But it is not all work. Oppenheim says her favorite memories are at the Denton Community Market.

"I love seeing the excitement of visitors when they come for the first time, the excitement of vendors who have successful days and the wonderful gatherings of the Denton community," she says.

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