Fount Leather co-owner Jackie Wachter couldn’t be more excited about her company’s new Tyler Village studio. Founded originally as a side hustle by Wachter and her now-husband, Phillip, the company now has two thriving retail stores, one in the Gordon Square Arts District and one in Columbus. With that kind of growth, Fount needs the extra room. At roughly 22,000 square feet, the Tyler Village space boasts slick modern amenities (separate offices! central air-conditioning!) and gives the leather goods business room to stitch up a new future.
Fount’s roots are far more modest. Wachter says they sold seven leather totes at their first Cleveland Flea appearance in April 2014. Since then, they’ve been a steady presence at the event, and are a vendor for the Flea’s upcoming seventh season, which kicks off May 4 and 5. Exhibiting at the Flea was the spark Fount needed to start growing. “The Flea was this stepping stone that let us organically get to where we are today,” Wachter says.
Fount is just one of many successful local businesses that have grown out of the Flea. Since the event began in 2013, it has been a booming force in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, first in the Slovenian National Home, then in the parking lot of Sterle’s Country House, and, since 2014, in a 100,000-square-foot parking lot in AsiaTown’s Tyler Village complex.
The Flea has succeeded in creating a vibrant marketplace for creative entrepreneurs such as Fount. Each market now draws about 10,000 people. Vendors trek in from San Diego and Atlanta. Some visitors even come from cities such as St. Louis, Toronto and Philadelphia, says founder Stephanie Sheldon. But has it been an effective economic development tool to boost St. Clair-Superior?
Creating a beloved event in a neighborhood that’s struggling with decline is supposed to be an effective way to attract new business, money and people. But as the Flea illustrates, the reality of that theory on the ground is more complicated than it appears.
An invisible wall stands between the Flea and the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood. There is no acrimony between them. They simply coexist, thriving or failing on their own sides, but rarely crossing over. And despite efforts to tear down that wall, they remain worlds apart.
For starters, a lack of hard data makes it difficult to quantify the Flea’s impact on the neighborhood. Sheldon only has ballpark estimates, but says an average Flea might do more than $430,000 in sales. St. Clair Superior Development Corp. gave the Flea a $27,000 Retail Ready grant in 2013, and so might have previously tracked the Flea’s impact on the neighborhood. But the organization declined an interview request. A message left with the office of Basheer Jones, the city councilman whose ward encompasses the Flea, was not returned.
Anecdotally, an average Flea draws about 175 vendors. Out of those, only a handful have opened permanent spaces in St. Clair-Superior: Fount, Raw Trainer, Modern Cre8ve and the Flea’s own headquarters. But the Flea’s boosters say it has been a big mover in changing the neighborhood’s storyline.
“It would be hard to directly tie everything back to it,” says Michael Fleming, former executive director of the St. Clair Superior Development Corp. “But the Flea really created an energy that was undeniable, and really helped with a narrative change for an East Side neighborhood that had historically been under-invested in.”
Sheldon is also thrilled by the perception shift. “More than anything, what we hear from shoppers is that they actually walk through their city,” she says. “That’s huge for Cleveland because, as a city of drivers, they actually walk through a neighborhood.”
However, the Flea’s growth hasn’t been without pain. Fleming notes that the Flea’s emergence unwittingly exposed a generation gap in neighborhood businesses. Instead of trying to attract customers flocking to the Flea, some older businesses in St. Clair-Superior, not used to the hubbub of one-day visitors, have stayed closed during past events.
“The Flea was very much about sharing, about attracting people to an older space and bringing the existing business visitor in there. Like, giving them new opportunities or new customer bases, potentially,” says Fleming. “And you didn’t see any negative reaction. You just didn’t see it being embraced as a tool, which was surprising.”
Especially because Sheldon has made efforts to reach out. In response to concerns about parking, the Flea moved its entrance to the St. Clair Avenue side of its Tyler Village space, she says, so cars won’t clog the bustling Superior Avenue and East 36th Street intersection. Flea staff also recommend attendees explore nearby restaurants, Sheldon says, and she’s heard that visitors are patronizing businesses outside of Flea days. Workers from area businesses also come and hang out, she adds.
“We always work really hard every year to go in and talk to people, write stories about them, really kind of introduce ourselves again every year to them [and say] ‘This is what we’re doing here,’ ” says Sheldon.
Three well-connected AsiaTown business community sources didn’t want to be quoted by name when contacted. But for their part, they regard the Flea as a neutral presence. The event’s growth is good, one source shares, and more traffic in the neighborhood is a positive thing. But they also say the Flea’s impact on nearby businesses is small, and certainly has not reached the neighborhood-fortune-turning scale that its most ardent supporters suggest.
Sheldon acknowledges that Flea vendors have had difficulty finding inroads into the neighborhood. She says that’s due to how maker-driven businesses operate — working at home until they’re off and running — and a dearth of suitable real estate offerings.
“Vendors and small businesses really want to start out with a $500 rent. That doesn’t exist in any of these buildings,” says Sheldon. “And the spaces that are in all of these warehouses are, like, 3,000 square feet minimum. A small-scale vendor needs 1,000 or 1,500 square feet.”
Sheldon wishes more landlords saw this gap in the market, which throws a roadblock in front of her vendors interested in opening up a storefront in St. Clair-Superior.
More people should be able to follow Sheldon’s example. Not only are the Flea’s headquarters in Tyler Village, but Sheldon lives in the Mueller Lofts in AsiaTown.
The Flea has momentum to make that vision a reality. It is expanding its scope this year, from monthly one-day markets to two-day markets every two months, in part so out-of-town vendors can participate. “That’s one of our main goals, is to put Cleveland on the map creatively, nationally, this year,” Sheldon says. “We’re really hoping it becomes like a more national or regional destination for everybody.”
As the Flea’s profile rises, Sheldon wants the neighborhood and city to reap the benefits. “Change is tough,” she says. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve done everything perfectly right either, because we’re learning as we go. But we love our neighborhood very much.”