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  • Elizabeth Studebaker, the force behind the Midtown Farmers Market, is leaving to take a job with the city of San Diego.

  • Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: Can we do more to retain region's emerging civic leaders?

Published: Saturday, May. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 12, 2013 - 3:07 pm

One of the reasons I'm grateful to live and work in midtown is the serendipity. On Thursday evening, I was working in my office at 21st and Q. Suddenly I heard the sounds of a brass band belting out New Orleans music. "Am I hearing things?" I asked a colleague. No, there was a brass band out there. I jumped on my bicycle to investigate.

Three blocks away, a crowd had gathered on the patio of Bows and Arrows to hear Element Brass Band, the first of four acts kicking off the cafe's "In the Flow Festival." The young musicians in "Element" were a revelation – most were from Sacramento but had mastered the groove of New Orleans as if they had been doing second-line parades since childhood.

A week ago, I had a similar moment of serendipity on the other side of midtown, a few blocks away from where I live. Friends had told me about the new Midtown Farmers Market, which launched April 27 and is being held every Saturday morning.

Arriving at 20th and J streets, I came across a parking lot normally empty on Saturdays. It had been transformed into an outdoor food emporium. There was a band playing, and valet bike parking and a clown handing out balloons to kids. There were food stalls with seasonal vegetables, but also ones with prepared delights – pasta with meatballs, shaved ice, cappuccinos.

There were shaded picnic tables for sitting and enjoying a snack or a lunch.

I bought cauliflower from one stall, green garlic and strawberries from another, and cherries from another. A vendor called Pasta Queen was selling fresh-made black truffle ravioli to take home, so I bought some and then purchased mushrooms for sauce from a neighboring stall. Dinner was set for Saturday night.

Compared to the farmers market under the freeway on Sundays, the midtown market is sunnier and more intimate. It won't take the place of many people's weekly visits to the Sunday market, where the variety is beyond compare. But the midtown market offers a nice option for Saturday shopping.

It is the most exciting addition to midtown in years.

Credit goes to the Midtown Business Association, and more specifically, to Elizabeth Studebaker, its executive director. Studebaker helped start a farmers market during her previous job in San Diego, and determined to start one in midtown when she arrived here in early 2012.

At one of her first meetings with her board, Studebaker said she enthusiastically floated the farmers markets idea. "People were like, 'Whoa, Liz, you just got here. You might be biting off more than you can chew.' "

So Studebaker took her time developing the project. She conferred with Dan Best, the local guru of farmers markets, and they surveyed possible sites.

She found a parking lot owner willing to donate the current space for the market, and was cheered on by surrounding tenants and building owners excited by the prospect. The next job was a hire a market manager, secure permits, recruit vendors and promote the market via social media and other means.

It all seems to be working. There was a huge crowd the first weekend, and a strong but more neighborly turnout the second. Shoppers were having that unique farmers market experience, learning about how food is grown and meeting the people who produce it.

Studebaker hopes the market will bring in more food vendors and crafts booths over time. "But the core of the market will always be fresh produce," she said. "It will always retain its identity as a farmers market."

After my Saturday visit to the farmers market, I spent the next several days singing Studebaker's praises to friends. "This is exactly the kind of young leader Sacramento needs," I'd tell people. "She is making stuff happen."

Imagine my reaction when I picked up Tuesday's Bee and learned that Studebaker will soon be leaving us. She was aggressively recruited by the San Diego Economic Development Department to serve as advocate for that city's 18 business improvement districts and several other smaller business entities. She plans to start in July.

Studebaker, who is in her mid-30s, said she struggled with the decision. "I have absolutely enjoyed my time here in Sacramento," she said. "I spent weeks on the phone with my friends and family figuring out what to do."

Steve Hansen, the Sacramento City Council member who represents midtown, said Studebaker deserves kudos for the market and more. While here, she worked hard to improve neighborhood lighting and litter cleanup, and tried to smooth relations between bars, nightclubs and neighborhood groups.

"She wasn't afraid to get up to her elbows on issues," said Hansen. "She was exactly the kind of person we needed in that job."

I have no idea if Sacramento could have done anything to retain an up-and-comer such as Studebaker. Her new job probably pays more, and gives her a broader stage to help businesses and neighborhoods flourish in a city where she previously worked and went to college.

Yet her departure should prompt many of us to reflect on the larger challenge. In this region, what can we do to nurture and retain talented young people who, too often, move elsewhere to advance their careers?

If we want a vibrant city that thrives on creativity and serendipity, we can't afford to lose our emerging civic stars.

Follow Stuart Leavenworth on Twitter @SacBeeEditBoard.

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