When Caitlin Venczel moved to Bellevue with her family in 2014, she didn’t like going outside. At that point, the Shenango Coke Works was still in operation just down the Ohio River on Neville Island.
“There was a smell in the air," Venczel said. "When we would go outside to play, we’d bring our daughter outside and we could smell it. It made me so nervous, I’d bring her right back inside.
"I felt stuck in my house.”
Venczel said she began to regret moving to Bellevue. But in 2016, the coke plant shut down for good, and she said things began to change for the better. Venczel noticed that the air quality improved immediately.
“We’re outside all the time now," Venczel said. "Ever since that happened, I’ve seen this energy and this influx. Housing prices are rising right now. They’re still very reasonable, but they’re rising, and I think it has a lot to do with the coke plant shutting down, and every time a new family comes in, they seem to be ready to be active in the community.”
Venczel, a stay-at-home mom, said she and two friends -- Erika McAfee and Kim Reed -- decided to harness that energy last spring. During an April brainstorming session of a Bellevue parents’ group, one idea stood out: a farmer’s market. The three friends decided to go for it.
It would be a tall task. From researching laws and buying insurance to recruiting vendors and even finding performers, Venczel said they worked furiously to get ready for the first of the weekly markets in June. In the end, she said, it was a community-wide effort.
“It was all of Bellevue," Venczel said. "We did a huge chunk of work, the three of us -- Kim, Erika and I -- but people researched ordinances, and looked into talking to Council, and got us a seat in front of them -- all of this stuff that really came together and made it able to be happening so quickly.”
When the Bellevue farmers market opened just six weeks after the idea was floated, it had everything you might expect, like locally-produced food and goods. It also had some things you might not, like free yoga classes, skateboarding lessons, and a six-week series of concerts.
“It was a whole festival," Venczel said. "Every week, we had, basically, a festival in the park."
The weekly Wednesday markets in Bellevue’s central Bayne Park were open through October, and they’ll be back this year.
Fellow farmers market co-founder Erika McAfee said Venczel is the type of person who brings the community together.
“The farmer’s market was such a huge thing, and Caitlin’s like, ‘We got this. We can totally do this.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah. We totally can do this,’" McAfee said. "And then we did, and it was amazing. She was expecting her second child, and still pushing and doing this.”
Having just welcomed a new child to her family, Venczel has stepped back from the farmers market, leaving it in the hands of the Bellevue nonprofit "Bonafide Bellevue."
But Venczel -- who also founded the Pittsburgh chapter of the family outdoor club Hike It Baby -- is far from done with community activism. The next project on her list is a regional Harry Potter festival in Bellevue this August.