Just six months after the recession slowed business at the Chattanooga Market to a crawl, the weekly craft fair and farmer's market at the First Tennessee Pavilion opened to a spring crowd of almost 10,000 people Sunday, its general manager said.
A record number of vendors sold everything from plants and produce to popcorn, offering a strong start to the downtown market's eighth season, Paul Smith said.
"The entrepreneurial spirit has kicked in for people who had otherwise lost their job or are looking for a secondary income," Mr. Smith said.
Ashley Moore, a clothing designer from Knoxville, was among those vendors for whom the recession proved a fortuitous business opportunity.
After getting laid off from her job as a graphic designer for a men's clothing company last fall, she used her newly found free time to start sewing women's skirts using unique fabrics in feminine, vintage-inspired designs, she said.
"I kept trying to get this started, but when you work full time it's really hard to do the fun stuff," she said. "So I'm actually kind of glad I lost my job."
Ms. Moore said she hopes her company, Southern Skirts, eventually will spur local production of cotton, textiles and other materials necessary to support her business.
Finding local products of all sorts is why Danna Bailey Cannon said she stops by the market every spring to buy the tomato plants, jalapeno peppers, basil, dill and lavender she grows at her home in Highland Park.
"If I go to Home Depot ... maybe $20 of the $100 I spend is going to stay in Chattanooga and the other $80 is going to go to Atlanta, where they're going to pay their accountants and their marketing people and CEO," she said. "I'd rather we build a sustainable community ourselves, so I try to buy products that are made by local companies whenever I can."
The growth in interest in local products has helped connect small business owners to make a go of their dreams, according to Bob and Joan Jones, of Happy Valley Produce in Chickamauga, Ga.
A Chickamauga native and retired Army Sergeant first class, Mr. Jones said he started his hydroponic lettuce farm last October as a way to keep busy.
"Statistically, if you retire from the military and go fishing, you die in three years. What you have to do is maintain the same active lifestyle you had in the military," he said.
Just months after beginning production, his farm grows seven varieties of lettuce, which Mr. Jones said he sells to area restaurants such as Blacksmith's Bistro, The Walden Club and the Broad Street Grille & Foundry.
About the risk of using a growing technique sometimes associated with illegal drugs, Mr. Jones just smiled.
"We actually put a four-foot-square double insulated window in the back wall just so people can drive up and they can look," he said. "We have nothing to hide."