By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — Agriculture is the state's No. 1 industry and the Farmers Market serves as the hub for produce distribution throughout most of the East Coast.
However, the 160-acre wholesale and retail center was built in 1959 and is in need of a make-over, said Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Kulinski was the guest speaker for Thurday's Clayton County Chamber of Commerce's Early Bird Breakfast, normally held at Clayton State University. Chamber members instead met for scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits at the market's Oakwood Cafe.
There are at least 126 businesses inside the market, which started out on Murphy Avenue in Atlanta.
"We've got large businesses, small businesses and farmers setting up to sell produce," said Kulinski. "You can buy one peach to a box of peaches to a truckload of peaches. You can get just about any type of produce in any quantity."
The location just off I-75, near a railroad and just a few miles from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport puts the market in a unique place for regional distribution.
"It's a perfect location," he said. "Atlanta was built on transportation. There's no reason to move the market. Clayton County has been a wonderful partner with the state. It's large enough, it can stay and continue to add to the economy."
However, the market is going through an existential crisis.
"Will it be be able to meet demands?" said Kulinski. "We need more cooler space. A lot of buildings here were built in 1959. A lot has changed since then. We don't want to spend lots of money to add coolers to older buildings."
The Department of Agriculture is looking at having to spend about $300,000-$400,000 for improvements and upgrades, with a 40-year plan to easily spend $1 billion for an overhaul of the market. Kulinski said the market generates about $7 million in revenue and only needs about half that amount to operate.
"We create a profit for the state," he said. "How many state departments can say that? But what if all of a sudden, we're running in the red? This market could be in danger. There has to be an economic incubator. The market has to be attractive and inviting, to look good and be safe."
With agriculture being a $70 billion industry for Georgia, followed by tourism, officials need to be thinking about how to keep the market contemporary and viable.
"In the future, this could be a major attraction for people visiting Clayton County," he said.
Forest Park Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord attended the breakfast and agreed with Kulinski's assessments.
"The city of Forest Park gave the Department of Agriculture that study that shows it needs to be more customer-friendly to help the agriculture base," she said. "But it's a matter of funding. Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black has been positive about the study and hopefully along the way, we can get funding. We get the recognition for it being here, although it's a state agency, and we'd like for it to stay forever."
The market is open 24-hours a day, 364 days a year, closing to the public only on Christmas Day. In addition to produce, the market carries meat and poultry products. In addition to acres of sheds, visitors can buy Georgia-grown products inside a welcome center and eat meals made with fresh produce inside Oakwood Cafe.