If the creators of Napa’s Oxbow Public Market had looked into a crystal ball back in 2007, they might have been both horrified and delighted at what they saw in the future.
The Great Recession flood control construction and the closure (and reopening) of Copia. An earthquake. Deadly fires. And more.
Ten years later, the Oxbow Public Market has not only managed to overcome such obstacles, it’s become a key success on the east side of the city’s downtown.
An estimated 1.8 million to 2 million customers visit the market each year. It’s popular with both locals and visitors. The complex is leased to full capacity and there’s a waiting list for future tenant openings.
Today, as the market celebrates a decade after opening in December 2007, Oxbow has become “a great asset,” to downtown Napa, said Oxbow Public Market founder Steve Carlin.
“Oxbow has become a local gathering place and a place to support and celebrate local artisan food merchants,” he said. “We’re proud to be a part of it.”
“It has become the center for community in the city of Napa,” said an original investor, Rob Jennings.
“We have a real destination in downtown Napa,” said Cassandra Walker, former city of Napa community development director.
The 40,000-square-foot marketplace, which includes an outdoor deck with seating along the Napa River, features a diverse tenant mixture of about 22 merchants, including local food vendors, artisan cafes and an organic produce outlet for local farms. The market offers wine, food, books and more.
Judging by how full the market is on weekends and how many cars there are in the parking lot, the market idea seems so obvious now, but such success was not always guaranteed.
Carlin recalled that more than 10 years ago, the Oxbow district wasn’t much to talk about.
But after the Mondavis launched Copia and redevelopment of the area began, Carlin’s idea to create a public market, “seemed like it had the potential to be a really significant project.”
It was more than wishful thinking. Carlin was coming off a similar, and successful, project: the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace.
“I knew how powerful the concept was,” he said. “I had a sense this would fit nicely into an incredible wine community.”
Rob Jennings was one of the estimated 30 investors who started the market. His investment reached into the six-figure range, he said. While he’s no longer an investor in the market, he was and remains an investor in the wine and cheese business at the Oxbow.
Jennings said when Carlin laid out the plan for the Oxbow Public Market, “I just thought, ‘This is a no brainer.’ We thought it was a great concept and a great location. And we had confidence in Steve Carlin.”
It was more than just a dollars and cents decision to invest in the market, Jennings said. “There was a sense of civic duty. It was a belief that this was something that would be good for our town and the valley.”
“We’re proud we stuck with it and were initial investors,” said Jennings.
Today, the Oxbow Public Market is the anchor of the area. “I think the concept is proved; people love it,” said Jennings. “I never get tired of going to the Oxbow Market.”
Cassandra Walker described Carlin’s plan for the Oxbow Public Market as “a very innovative idea for Napa.”
The project complemented Copia well, and “it had every opportunity of being a gathering place for Napans and a destination for visitors,” Walker said in an interview earlier this week.
Before the market opened, “we didn’t have a place where everyone could congregate,” in the same way they do today at Oxbow, she said.
“Steve went out of his way to reach out to Napans to make it their place. Napans really responded.”
Walker said Carlin needs to be complimented in particular for persevering through the extensive flood control construction and the closure of Copia.
“That was an amazing effort to keep the Oxbow Market open and running throughout that period.”
Carlin’s creativity and hard work paid off, she said.
“We knew it had the ability to be special and Steve pushed and worked hard,” to make it happen, she said. “Steve continues to evolve the market to be what the community needs.”
Of course, there were challenges along the way – some that could have completely derailed the project.
In the beginning, “There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm,” from merchants to become tenants, Carlin said. The public market concept hadn’t been proven in Napa.
The location itself was another unknown. “There wasn’t really anything but Copia,” as a neighbor on that side of downtown, said Carlin.
In 2008, just after Oxbow opened, the original Copia campus closed abruptly and later filed for bankruptcy. The building was empty for many years after that.
In addition to the closure of Copia, the overall flood control project, including the construction of the bypass channel also deterred visitors. Bridge and road access to the market was closed at different times.
And then came the biggest whammy—the Great Recession.
“That time was a pretty bleak time in the history of the American economy,” said Carlin. But this entrepreneur credited his ownership group for keeping the market open.
To endure the downturn, his investors – almost all locals – were asked to invest more money in the project.
When Copia closed, “Some were sounding the death knell, but it was such a strong concept,” said Jennings. “I never wavered in my belief that this would be good for Napa.”
Carlin also credited the conviction of his tenants.
“We were all incentivized to make this successful, and we all believed in it,” Carlin said.
Carlin said that 2008 and 2009 were the toughest years. By 2010 things had started to turn around.
Copia was still closed, but “we started to claw our way out of the recession.”
Good tenant decisions paid off, he said. The market added new merchants such as C Casa and Ritual Coffee Roasters, and other mainstays like Five Dot Ranch, Hog Island Oyster Co. and Gott’s restaurant were doing well.
And when consumers started shopping again, Oxbow was ready.
Carlin said one factor that made the market what it is today was that “the community of Napa embraced Oxbow – really embraced it.”
On Tuesday nights, the market offered special deals and promotions – and it was a win.
From that support, “I realized the community had decided this could not fail,” Carlin said. “That was the major turning point for us.”
Today, about 75 percent of Oxbow Public Market merchants are original tenants, he said.
Carlin declined to specify lease rates or terms but said tenants pay a minimum rent plus a percentage of sales. “It’s a partnership with the tenant,” and the market, he explained.
He declined to reveal how much money the market has made over the past decade only to say that “Oxbow is very successful financially.”
In 2015, Madison Marquette, a private real estate investment company, paid an undisclosed amount to buy out the Market’s estimated 30-some investors to become a single partner with Carlin.
“They have been a great partner,” said Carlin. “It’s been a good relationship.”
Of course, not every component of the Oxbow Public Market has been a success.
Oxbow originally planned to have farm stands on the outside of the building, but that concept didn’t work.
“We got the farmers, but we didn’t have enough customers in the beginning,” he said. The farmers couldn’t wait for the business to develop, so those stalls were closed. Today, the spaces have been taken over by other Oxbow merchants for outdoor dining and other uses.
Other tenants have come and gone over the years. Carlin continues to tweak operations. One future edit could include relocating a large trash and compactor area, currently located in a very prominent spot between the Oxbow annex buildings and the main hall.
“It’s yucky,” he admitted. “We are going to solve that problem. We think we have better use of that building.”
Parking will continue to be a challenge.
“We are trying to encourage more people to walk and carpool and bicycle,” he said. New parking garages could accommodate needs. “We will get to a point where we have to make some hard choices about how visitors park at Oxbow, including possible validated or valet parking, he said.
Carlin is also evaluating future merchants at the market.
“I’m seeing more of a trend towards makers coming back into the fold,” such as artisans who create ceramics or other handmade items. “We’re looking at some of those opportunities for down the road as leases expire.”
Carlin is also finding time for another project – an Oxbow-like concept on the Sonoma square.
At the site of the original Sonoma Cheese Factory, Carlin is creating a new market that will be about the same size as the Oxbow Public Market. He hopes to open in mid-2019.
“We’re very excited about that,” he said.
The information box with this story has been corrected since original posting with the date of the Jan. 20 anniversary party.