Jefferson Street Market’s closure doesn’t bode well for our historic downtown.

[Editor's note: Since the print version of this column went to press Tuesday afternoon, we learned that a real estate development company entered into a contract to purchase the Jefferson Street Market property from the Robisons. Based on this company's track record downtown, this is an encouraging development indeed. More to come later.]

Businesses go out of business all the time. It is as prosaic to the life cycle of commerce as a sale or a receipt. So it wasn’t a shock to the system when we learned last week that Jefferson Street Market will close by the end of the month. It was a punch in the solar plexus for many who support downtown Lafayette. But a shock it was not. Traffic wasn’t exactly robust in the quirky market-slash-art gallery. For the last several months, if not year, a good month at JSM was a break-even month.

For me, the closure last spring of City News Stand was as great a loss for downtown, in part because it was the last news stand in the city and also because a news stand — such a quaint and quintessential 20th century enterprise — fit the district’s historical and spiritual character.

Where Jefferson Street Market’s closure shifts from prosaic to poetic is in what it means symbolically for downtown Lafayette. The market opened in December 1996, the same time StreetScape promised to visibly alter not only downtown Lafayette’s main artery but our perception of the role a historic downtown can and should play in the life of a city; the same time that vision and determination — and public and private investment — were marshalled in equal measure to transform the area.

Downtown Lafayette is so close to realizing that vision, so close that the achievement gap seems painfully wide. There are some fine restaurants, galleries and public spaces. Jefferson Street has a bustle and buzz during weekdays it didn’t have 20 years ago. But when JSM closes, the area’s retail aspect will contract. As anyone who has been there knows, JSM is home to more than a dozen vendors who sell their products on consignment; its closure puts more than a few people out of business. Many of those vendors are making plans to move to downtown Breaux Bridge. Our loss is Pont Breaux’s gain.

Owners Rob and Catherine Robison could have soldiered on — friends, especially those who support the downtown district and long for it to achieve that critical mass wherein retail, commercial, cultural and residential realize a self-sustaining balance — pressed them to stay. The Robisons are people of means; they own the building outright. They could have stayed open and no doubt agonized over the decision.

A vacant Jefferson Street Market is a very visible capitulation to the truth that perception can have a profound affect on reality. The perception — fed mainly by periodic news reports of late-night crime, most of it garden-variety property crime, some of it alcohol-fueled stupidity — is that downtown Lafayette isn’t safe. I would wager that downtown is safer during business hours than a sprawling parking lot on the south side. But that’s not the perception.

Downtown’s proximity to some distressed neighborhoods, its few transients, who keep mainly to themselves, and its sometimes frustrating lack of convenient parking have abetted the area’s difficulty in establishing an enduring identity. More than a dozen years after StreetScape, which the Robisons hitched their wagon to, downtown Lafayette still feels like it’s in flux, like its future is tenuous.

But as Jefferson Street Market prepares for its final ArtWalk this month, a froufrou tea and pastry shop opened in Gordon Square down the street. The market’s closure is not the end of the world, but it is definitely a blow to downtown.

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