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Men on bicycles stop to look at the remains of the main building at the St. Jacobs Farmers Market on Sept. 2, 2013, after an overnight fire destroyed the building. (GEOFF ROBINS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Men on bicycles stop to look at the remains of the main building at the St. Jacobs Farmers Market on Sept. 2, 2013, after an overnight fire destroyed the building. (GEOFF ROBINS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Market fire leaves $2-million damage in blow to heart of Ontario Mennonite country Add to ...

It was the crown jewel in the heart of Ontario’s Mennonite country, a meeting place for the surrounding community, where tourists flocked by the thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars could be made by merchants in a single day.

The farmer’s market in St. Jacobs was destroyed by fire Monday, suffering an estimated $2-million in damage, but the long-term cost will be much greater. The economic hub would normally be full of produce, meats, crafts and antiques as it settled into the busy high season, with visitors arriving in search of fresh vegetables or Thanksgiving decorations, such as local squash and gourds. It was the main attraction for the township located just north of Waterloo, where hotels, restaurants and tour operators depend on the thousands of visitors who bustle through weekly.

“It’s very devastating not only for our town but the region of Waterloo because it’s something that’s iconic,” said Todd Cowan, mayor of the town of 2,000 people. “There will be a loss in business and revenue tourism … The attraction and essence of the market is because it’s still a grassroots hometown with buy-local type of food.”

As of Monday afternoon, there was no hint of where the fire started, and no indication of suspicious activity. “There’s a lot of devastation,” said Lonnie Schubert, a supervisor with the Ontario Fire Marshal. Fire and police officials are continuing their investigation.

The town is already rallying, hoping dozens or even hundreds of outdoor stalls will able to return by the next market day on Thursday. The market runs three days a week in the summer and twice weekly in the fall, but 60 vendors from inside the building will have a harder time getting back to business – especiallay those who had cooking or cooling equipment destroyed.

The question is whether the tourists, who come from as far afield as Thunder Bay and Montreal, the northeastern United States and, increasingly, from Europe, will return in the wake of the destruction.

These days, Mennonites make up only a small segment of the market’s buyers and sellers, but they, too, are expected to feel the fire’s impact.

“There are Mennonites there on sale days, selling syrup and crafts. For a main source of income, there are definitely some that are there every week,” said Adam Weber, a member of the local Mennonite community, as he steered his buggy out of St. Jacobs. As for the possible broader decline in tourism, “there’s some farmgate stores and some roadside stands,” Mr. Weber said, “but not as a main source of income.”

Firefighters were called to a blaze in the market’s main post-and-beam barn building at 1:45 a.m. Monday. No one was hurt but the flames were through the roof and the building was effectively lost by the time they arrived six minutes later. As fire crews search for a cause and begin erecting safety fences around the site, where blackened timber beams and charred rubble are all that remains, other local business owners are beginning to take stock of the potential damage to their livelihoods.

Local hotels relying on tourism could be hit hard. New lodgings are being built to meet tourist demand, and across the street from the market, a $14-million Holiday Inn Express just opened at the end of July. At least 30 per cent of its business comes from market-goers, many of whom come from around Ontario and the United States.

“It will affect us,” said Michael Walsh, the hotel’s sales manager, who plans to promote the market’s re-opening on social media. “Anyone that does ask about it, we’ll let them know that there are still outdoor vendors at the market.”

Whether that will be a sufficient draw in the short term remains to be seen. Niagara Toronto Tours has run bus trips to St. Jacobs since 1993, on Thursdays and Saturdays from spring until Christmas. The company, which gets half its patrons from the Toronto area and the rest from abroad, including Britain, Germany, Australia and Asia, will now focus its pitch on the town of St. Jacobs itself.

“This will no doubt affect our bottom line in the next eight to 10 weeks,” said Michael, the tour company’s operations manager, who declined to give his last name. “More outdoor vendors is no solution. The heart of the farmers’ market was inside.”

Mr. Cowan, the St. Jacobs mayor, said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called him Monday to let him know she was thinking of everyone affected by the fire. Ms. Wynne wrote on Twitter, “We must all do our part to support St Jacobs’ vendors and local food suppliers throughout Ontario.”

With help from a fortuitous wind, firefighters were able to keep the blaze contained to the main market building, protecting structures that house livestock and crafts next door. And most of the products sold at the market aren’t left there overnight, though some crafts and quilts are thought to have gone up in smoke. “It is shocking, but this is a town where people count their blessings,” said Marcus Shantz, president of Mercedes Corp., which owns the farmers market building.

“So, when you have a disaster and no one’s hurt, that’s something to be thankful for,” he said. “I think everybody is pretty resolved to bring it back.”

In the meantime, Hilltop Acres Poultry Products, which has been in the St. Jacobs Market building since it was built in the 1980s, is offering its farm store on the outskirts of nearby Bloomingdale as an alternate place for vendors to set up. Owner Donna Reist said she has limited space, but will help as many people as she can.

“It would just be a stop-gap until the market is back up and going,” said Ms. Reist. “It is people’s business and for some people, it’s their only place of business. A lot of people’s livelihoods have just been devastated with that fire.”

Even if a makeshift market opens up later this week, not everyone is convinced the shoppers will come back so soon. “I don’t even know if I’ll set up because the [draw] is not there,” said John Oberholzer, a retiree who runs Johnny O’s Sports Cards and Collectibles at an outdoor stall.

“It’s going to affect the economy, like restaurants,” he said.

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