BORNE out of the coronavirus crisis - when shops were shut, social distancing was in place and ventilation was key - Urban Markets are now a well-loved fixture in the borough and will celebrate their first birthday at The Junction this weekend.
When Crumlin man Thomas Ferris found himself on furlough because of the pandemic, after a career in the hospitality industry, he decided to do something positive instead.
Initially, the 33-year-old felt powerless as friends, family, and neighbours lost their livelihoods during Covid-19.
With the pandemic bringing a renewed interest in supporting and buying local, Thomas realised that outdoor markets provided a safe environment where shoppers could engage with and get to know the small business owners and learn about their products and processes.
With a background in events, Thomas was in a position to try and help.
He set up the first Urban Market in Crumlin in August 2020 and since then the venture has gone from strength to strength, spreading to a number of different venues
Thomas, Events and Operations Manager of Urban Events NI, secured a regular pitch at CS Lewis Square in Belfast and at The Junction and Urban Markets have now taken place across the borough, including a recent event in Antrim town.
“I’ve got to know lots of the traders really well over the past year and I am constantly impressed by their creativity, perseverance, and passion for what they do.” he said.
“Urban Market has become more than a business, we are a community that helps, supports, and celebrates each other.
“I'm proud to call many of them friends.
“I could see that a lot of my former friends in the industry were struggling during the pandemic, especially those who were self-employed and could not access the Government support which was available to those working for bigger companies and I wanted to give something back.
“While it has been a difficult 15 months, I have had some really positive moments.
“Urban Market has grown from strength to strength, I got engaged, moved house, met some fantastic people, and made some amazing new friends.
“The support and community spirit I have been privileged to experience has been nothing short of overwhelming.”
Thomas said that the markets had taken on a life of their own and said that Antrim was the perfect location.
“It is an amazing town with big outdoor spaces which are either under-utilised or unknown.” he said.
“Markets are a great way to shop. When lockdown started, people switched to buying online or going to large supermarkets more - but when you go to a market and talk to a trader, you can see and feel the product and talk to the person who made it.
“Some of our traders make unique, one-off pieces which you cannot buy anywhere else, and they will tell you the story behind it - you can’t get that in a supermarket.
“The turnout and support has been amazing, people feel safer out in the open air and they are having an experience as well as going out and buying something.
“Before the pandemic, people couldn’t really go to markets if they were working nine to five and commuting.
“People have more time and have re-assessed their priorities, they are more interested in local produce and supporting local traders
“Especially with things like personalised gifts, people have been surprised, things that they would have ordered online and stressed about arriving on time, they can buy from a talented local person who lives around the corner.
“Anyone who attends the markets regularly will get to know the traders and build up a relationship, it’s a lot more personal.”
Thomas said that he was keen to promote links between businesses large and small - and dispel the attitude that The Junction and the town centre are somehow in opposition.
“The main purpose is to boost economic recovery,” he said.
“These markets are designed to re-animate town centres.
“There is some feeling that The Junction and the town centre are far apart, when they are a ten minute walk from each other.
“I want to build on a model of large retailers and micro-businesses working together rather than an ‘us versus them’ thing.
“There is this impression that the council, Junction and Castle Mall favour large stores and national chains but we see them trying to offer support as stakeholders in the town.
“People coming into the town for the market will also go into the shops in the centres and vice versa - these events drive footfall and support businesses large and small, everyone wins.
“The council has also been extremely supportive.
“This partnership working is a really good thing to see.
“Our first market in Crumlin last year created a real buzz and people came from miles around - I invite everyone to come along and see what is on offer.”
The Urban Market will celebrate it’s first birthday in Antrim with an Artisan Market at The Junction this Saturday September 25 from 11am to 4pm, with over 40 local food and craft vendors.
There will also be a special series of events laid on by local charity Hope 365, which works to help orphans and victims of trafficking and extreme poverty in Ethiopia.
There will be examples and demonstrations of Ethiopian crafting, food and cooking as well as a performance by African drummers - plus the kids can have a go too.
There will also be live music from Harry McGarrity, ahead of his big fundraising gig for Emerge Counselling Services at the Stormont Hotel on November 20.