The bustling 5th Street Public Market has been a downtown Eugene staple for decades. This historic marketplace, located in the heart of the Market District, continues to be a community gathering space and incubator for local businesses. Developer Brian Obie, who spearheaded the area’s revitalization, brought new life not just to the Public Market building, but also the entire surrounding neighborhood. The Market District is now a seven-block area that is home to artisan shops, restaurants, and creative office spaces — a premier gathering place to shop, eat, socialize, and stay. With the grand opening of the Market Alley earlier this year, Obie gave the community a high-end assemblage of luxury hotels, fine dining, urban living, and unique businesses supporting local artists and entrepreneurs.
Nearing its 50-year anniversary, today’s 5th Street Public Market and the greater Market District reflects Obie’s collective tenure as Eugene’s mayor, city councilor, planning commissioner, and all-around visionary entrepreneur.
“I cannot walk between the original market and the Gordon Hotel without being stopped and somebody complimenting us on the evolution of this place and what it’s become in this community,” Obie says, reflecting on the future, present, and past of Eugene’s 5th Street Public Market and its grassroots beginning as a small marketplace. “The community is valuing this place, there’s no question about it. Obviously, we feel wonderful that we can make that kind of contribution to Eugene. In fact, one of the reasons we’re in the hotel business is that it gives us a chance to create an experience that’s joyful, meaningful, and adds to people’s day and their lives.”
Humble Beginnings: Past
The year was 1976 and an abandoned warehouse building sat where the Provisions Market Hall and Elephant’s Trunk toy store now thrive today. Norm Fogelstrom, Obie’s business partner at the time, had just returned from traveling. “Norm saw a small market somewhere with eateries and shops and thought the building would be a good place for something similar in Eugene,” Obie explained.
Rebranding the building as The 5th Street Market Craft Room, Fogelstrom and his wife, Donna, set about transforming the space into a large room for food vendors and entrepreneurs who could rent fold up tables for the day. Describing the Craft Room as a transformation of the Eugene Saturday Market that today remains one of the oldest open air craft markets in the United States, Obie explained, “The entrepreneurs at those tables were people making jewelry or yogurt or whatever and it became a magnet for the community. Downstairs in that same building were a few small shops including a card shop and a coffee place and a little bakery. And that was it. That was the initial vision. And it was successful.”
As Obie became more involved with the city he was appointed to the Eugene Planning Commission. Crediting his initial introduction to the business of planning to former Commission Chair Betty Niven, Obie describes Niven as someone who was Eugene’s most knowledgeable citizen in regards to land use planning.
“Betty took it upon herself to educate me on the difference between zoning and planning and one of the things she exposed me to was the concept of an urban village,” he said. “An urban village was a concept that had to do with a variety of uses in one spot where people are working, living, playing, and shopping in an urban setting. I could see the value and that concept stayed with me.”
Activity Creates Activity: Current
As time passed and the 5th Street Public Market began to evolve, the urban village idea became more real as a possibility. “There literally has never been a time that I’ve been associated with the market that there was not an addition planned,” he said. “So, the vision has grown. As it should. One success has led to the next one and there’s been a little bit of connecting the dots.”
Describing the current space as an estuary for unique entrepreneur tenants who are making different things happen, Obie explained the collective result is a unique attraction that draws visitors to a new downtown and marketplace. Obie Companies estimates that more than two million visitors pass through the district each year.
When it comes to blending the right mix of tenants, the decision is weighed carefully and intentionally by Obie and his team. “What don’t we have? What does the community want? What’s going on elsewhere? Those are the questions we ask ourselves. And then we come up with two or three categories and identify who’s in that category and where they are. We reach out to them and try to fill in the blanks. Activity is another thing we talk about all the time. Activity creates activity! And that’s what we need to create for our tenants and for the community. It’s a process we go through with a lot of discussion and that’s why it’s working.”
For Obie, staying true to the roots of the original Craft Room and focusing on local, entrepreneurial tenants has helped to create interest in the property as it has grown and expanded over the years.
In that vein, Obie stresses the importance of each tenant bringing something to the party. He explained, “We want people that bring their own clientele or will attract a unique clientele. And the additional traffic helps them but also helps everybody that’s here. If everybody does that, then one helps the other.”
Describing today’s 5th Street Public Market as a destination that is beyond just for the people who live in Eugene, Obie added, “If you walk to The Inn at the 5th or the Gordon Hotel at this moment you will find people there literally from all over the country and probably from other parts of the world. And it’s a daily thing. Who would have thought that would be the outcome of this little market at the corner of 5th and High?”
A Global Destination: Future
Continuing to spread the message that Eugene is a great place to live and a great place to visit is high on the Obie Companies vision board. He remarks that they have “meaningful conversation” about how to get people in the other parts of the world to understand Eugene and how to capitalize on it being a global destination. “People come and they get it,” he said. “They get it and they come back once they understand what’s here. People share those thoughts with us all the time.”
Meeting the demand for additional housing in the Eugene community, Obie Companies hopes to break ground on The Station House, a residential apartment complex slated for construction in the heart of the Market District in the middle of 2024.
The Station House will bring an additional 100 units to the downtown business district, nearly doubling the residential space created with the opening of the Gordon Lofts in 2020. “We are very pleased that people are seemingly loving the Gordon Lofts,” Obie says. “It is full and has stayed full since leasing opened up, and it gives us the confidence to build more on it.”
A pleasant surprise for Obie and his team is the presence of children at the Gordon Lofts. With families moving back into downtown Eugene, Obie predicts the immediate success of The Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant that is currently being retrofitted into the historic Oregon Electric Station building that has sat vacant for the past two years. With this resurgence of the true urban village, Obie Companies has added seven parking lots to accommodate residents and visitors alike.
And it’s this type of transformative change that brings everything full circle on Obie’s nearly half-century vision for the city of Eugene. He concludes, “One thing I would like Eugene Magazine readers to know — if they don’t already — is that making a meaningful, positive difference is at the root of a lot of things we do as a collective group of people at Obie Companies. We value life, our lives, and our time on this earth and we want that time to be additive to the society that we live in. It demonstrates our core value that we want to spend our lives doing things that are meaningful to the communities we are living and working in.”