The fire that ripped through the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market early Monday morning destroyed more than the main building, it struck down what is perhaps Woolwich’s most visible symbol.
“Niagara has Niagara Falls. Toronto has the CN Tower. What we have that’s iconic in Woolwich, and Waterloo Region, is the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market,” said the David Brenneman, the township’s chief administrative officer.
That explains the public outpouring and widespread media coverage that followed news the main market building had been reduced to ash by a fire that quickly engulfed the structure in the wee hours of Labour Day.
The impact of the fire goes well beyond the damage pegged at as much as $4 million and 60 vendors displaced. A huge tourist draw and a staple for local food aficionados, especially now at harvest time, the market plays an important role in the community. That’s why there was a big scramble to ensure some 300 vendors would be back on Thursday, the next regular market day.
Most of the vendors operate outdoors anyway, and market owners Mercedes Corp. acted quickly to move some of those displaced by the fire into the flea market building or into outdoor stalls if applicable.
“The market is going to be open for business, and while we do that, we are going to be making plans for what might come in place of the building that burnt down,” said Jenny Shantz of Mercedes Corp.
“Every culture has a marketplace,” she continued. “I think when people come to a market, they feel at home, no matter where they’re from. If they’re new Canadians, or new to our region, it’s a place where people feel at home.”
The company vows to rebuild, and has received vocal support from the township. Brenneman said Woolwich is doing everything it can to promote the market as a tourist attraction.
“It’s a draw that not just supports the vendors and businesses that run out of it,” he said, “but also, indirectly, all of the other types of businesses. When people come here, they also visit the village, the outlet mall, and other parts of the region. That’s what it means.”
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was on hand at Thursday’s reopening to visit with vendors and offer supportive words. “It’s good for people to know the market is open. I’m here wearing my hat as Minister of Agriculture and Food as well – I really believe in farmers’ markets,” she told media.
When asked if the province would help in rebuilding, Wynne responded, “I think that conversation is premature. The investigation has just been done, and we want to be as supportive as we can, but I just think in terms of specifics it’s just too early.”
One of the many businesses returning is “Cupcakes! Cupcakes! Cupcakes!” run by student Tiia Planert. “It just feels like a loss of a member of the family,” said Angela Arenberg, Planert’s mother and business assistant. “We have wonderful relations with the other vendors, we have lots of customers that were very kind and supportive.”
Peter Barker, owner of St. Jacobs Tea, is optimistic about the future.
“I do believe that things will go forward again, and I will believe that the people who were there before will be there again,” he said. “I think it’s in the interest not just of us who were there, but also of the region.”
Brenneman agrees. “The best thing that [consumers] can do is continue to support the market,” he said. “Especially as we head into this important fall season, the harvest season, come out and buy produce.
“The rebuild will take some time, but when it comes to tourism, we’re coordinating very quickly messages and promotions with the market, and getting the message out through social media and advertising that the outdoor market is going to be up and operating.”
While Mercedes works to keep the market operating, investigators continue to search for the cause of the blaze. Firefighters from four township stations were notified of the fire at 1:45 a.m. on September 2, and within minutes the building was engulfed in flames. The Ontario Fire Marshal’s onsite investigation of potential ignition sources concluded on Wednesday, when items from the wreckage were taken for forensic investigation. With the help of security video, officials hope to pinpoint where the fire started and what caused it, though there’s no timeline for a conclusive report.