Pennsylvania Dutch country is home to quite a few multi-vendor markets that cater to tourists and residents alike. The partners behind the refreshed Columbia Market House hope that its intimate size, historic building, and community-connected programming will help it stand out.
The town of Columbia, PA, lies on the east bank of the Susquehanna River. This particular site has history going back to the mid-19th century: The original structure — which is still in use today — was built in 1869, but there’s good evidence that the land was home to an open-air market before that.
At the time, most market buildings in the region were privately funded, but Columbia’s was funded by the borough. Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan designed the building with arched Howe trusses and iron tension rods. This allowed for a large, open space that was rare for buildings of that era. Today, the Market House is on the National Register of Historic Places.
When business slowed in 2017, the local institution closed its doors. Hoping to find someone to redevelop the market, the Columbia Borough released a request for proposals in early 2018. That fall, CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health, a faith-based Lancaster community nonprofit, succeeded in its bid.
“With the Columbia Borough being the focus of our Healthy Communities Initiative, it made sense to partner with the borough on the Market House redevelopment,” says Kelsey Miller, who oversees market operations as the Healthy Communities Manager at CHI St. Joseph Children’s Health.
Construction began in early 2020 but hit pandemic delays. The revamped market opened on May 29, 2021.
This is a space to create a new sense of energy and belonging, a new place for residents to make memories and create traditions in the Borough.Kelsey Miller
“While we don’t have the number of stands other markets have, we have designed the market to be an experience that goes beyond shopping,” says Miller. A large central seating area gives customers a chance to enjoy their food, and the market has its own full-service restaurant and caterer, Gypsy Kitchen. Community members were involved in the selection of the 20 vendors now on site, and “the smaller number of vendors gives a sense of personal attention for customers.”
Columbia is also a different place than it was just a few years ago. Miller points to “a flurry of development,” including plans for a hotel, a redeveloped business park, and new housing — all of which partners hope will bring more traffic to the market.
Columbia also lost a grocery store, meaning locals had a tough time finding fresh food within walking distance before the Market House’s reopening. And the market itself has had some real upgrades: Major renovations and more curated spaces mean the market can host events as well as shoppers, diversifying its revenue stream.
“One of the goals is to use the market as an incubator for small businesses,” adds Miller. In addition to the established vendors during regular Wednesday and Saturday hours, the space welcomes pop-up vendors and seasonal outdoor markets.
The Market has already hosted a Covid vaccination site, and has scheduled an event to aid community members who need help accessing emergency rental assistance. This fall, look out for pumpkin-painting, trick-or-treating, and a costume contest.
“We want to establish the market as a gathering place for the community,” says Miller, as well as a space for accessible weekly shopping. “This is a space to create a new sense of energy and belonging, a new place for residents to make memories and create traditions in the Borough.”
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.