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Historic State Farmers Market in Sanford to reopen with fresh look thanks to produce company owner

The Florida Department of Agriculture opened its very first state farmers market in Sanford in 1934. The state sold the market to a Tampa produce company in 2015.
The Florida Department of Agriculture opened its very first state farmers market in Sanford in 1934. The state sold the market to a Tampa produce company in 2015.(FL Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services)

A Tampa-based produce company plans to renovate the 63-year-old State Farmers Market building in Sanford and reopen it to the public later this year.

Sanwa Food Group, a wholesale and retail produce company based in Hillsborough County, bought the 13.9-acre Farmers Market Property from the state in January 2015 for $2.8 million. The property, at 1400 French Ave., includes a 41,304-square-foot wholesale and bulk-food distribution center that Sanwa will continue to operate. The 8,000-square-foot former state market, fronting on French Avenue, will be renovated and opened to the public on weekends, according to project manager Javier Sabi.

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“We’ll be opening it up to vendors and farmers,” Sabi told GrowthSpotter. “There will be no arts and crafts, just farmers’ vegetables and fruits. What we’re trying to do is give healthy food choices to the people. We’re going to have chefs coming and showing how to store, how to cut, how to prepare the food. We’re going to have someone every (weekend) doing different things.”

The site of the revamped farmers market is a historic landmark in Sanford. The first state-owned Farmers Market opened there in December 1934. The land, at that time encompassing 20 acres, was purchased by the city and Seminole County from Alec V. and Katherine K. French. The market was successful and by 1941 was the model for 27 similar markets serving the agricultural industry in Florida.

The Florida Department of Agriculture dedicated the historic State Farmers Market in Sanford on Dec. 19, 1934.
The Florida Department of Agriculture dedicated the historic State Farmers Market in Sanford on Dec. 19, 1934.(Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services)

The original market consisted of 108 wood stalls that rented for 50 cents a day. An Atlantic Coastline Railroad spur provide rail service to the market. In time the market complex grew to include a filling station, restaurant, vegetable cooling room, citrus packing house, barber shop and four to five acres of paved parking.

The original vegetable market building was destroyed by fire in April 1957 and was replaced by the current concrete structure that Sanwa plans to renovate.

Sabi said he hoped to sign construction contracts with the general contractor, Baker Brothers of Sanford, on Friday. Demolition should start next week on a small building to make way for additional parking, he said. The entire project should take 60 days. He declined to give an estimate of the financial cost of the project.

Sabi said the farmers market, built in 1957, is in good shape, and renovations will be mostly cosmetic.

“Everything is pretty much cleaning and painting, and putting stalls in,” he said.

The developer is calling his project in downtown Sanford Magnolia Place and is hoping to attract a restaurant for the ground floor. The upper floors will each have four one-bedroom apartments .

The front of the building has regular, department-store type doors. The back consists of three bay doors where trucks can unload produce. There is one large room that could become a fish market, Sabi said.

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The city anticipates the market will be so popular that there are plans to have the Sanford free trolley extend a route there, said Economic Development manager Bob Turk. The city has applied for a $300,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to put a second trolley into service, which should mean even more people traveling to the market from the city’s SunRail stop or from downtown, a quarter mile away.

“We are looking at possibly having that as a stop for our Trolley, so people could get to it very easily,” Turk told GrowthSpotter. “That will be a big addition (for the trolley service) and I think it will be a big economic impact for Sanford.

Sanwa will continue to operate its distribution and bulk-food sale center at 1300 S. French Ave. in Sanford.

Tony Leung, a native of Hong Kong, founded Sanwa Growers in 1981. A graduate of Guelph University in Ontario, Leung started farming and marketing produce in Canada, according to the Sanwa website. He came to Florida in 1980 to find winter growing areas for his specialty Asian produce. He stopped to visit a former professor in the Ruskin community of south Hillsborough County, and stayed.

Leung began farming 160 acres of leased land near Ruskin in 1981, and eventually settled there. His wife Connie, also a Hong Kong native and Guelph grad, joined him as CFO of the newly formed Sanwa Growers Inc. The company operates a large farmers wholesale and retail market on East Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. Sanwa also has distribution centers in Miami and Atlanta.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at Newsroom@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-6261. Follow GrowthSpotter on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.

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