Trying to spot Dawn Bowman at the Ocala Downtown Market is like attempting to catch Halley’s Comet with a butterfly net; they’re both forces of nature with a lot of energy and massive, cosmic torque pushing them forward. Dawn is everywhere; flitting from booth to booth talking with vendors, stopping to chat with shoppers, or zooming off to fix a minor snafu when necessary. She does it with such cheerful efficiency and unflappable calm that you start to wonder if she’s somehow duplicated herself or broken the space/time continuum. However, this is not the case. She’s just a master of the multi-task.
“I’m here at 6 am helping set up tents and stalls,” she explains. “So it’s a long day, but I don’t really feel any of it until it’s over; it gets so busy and goes so fast.” She laughs. “I’ve been doing it for so long now that I just get up the following morning and start planning the next weekend.”

In addition to being a Showcase agent, a dedicated horsewoman and hands-on grandmother, Dawn has also worked at Ocala CEP since 2012, and is currently the driving force behind the revitalized Downtown Market. What has now become one of Ocala’s big weekend destinations was suffering significant setbacks during Covid lockdown – and even before that, it had been struggling to pull in shoppers and vendors.

As an added challenge, the person who had been running it before Dawn resigned very suddenly and would only be available for one week to work with the person replacing them. That didn’t leave the CEP many options; there wasn’t going to be time to find someone, train them, and throw them into the deep end. They needed someone who at least knew the area and the community well enough to keep their heads above water.

“I sort of volunteered as ‘interim director,’ just to get it on its feet and through the end of the year before we found the right person to take over,” Dawn remembers. “It was only meant to be temporary. At first.”

She started out with no budget and an uphill climb. The pandemic was tearing across the planet, no one was leaving home for hardly anything, much less shopping, and vendors were pretty scarce. In fact, only 26 were signed up at the time and sales were low to the point of near-unsustainability. But rather than feeling backed into a corner, Dawn tackled the challenge by looking outside of it. First, a little bit of history (we promise to make it brief) about farmer’s markets: They go back thousands of years, to ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Jerusalem; the Silk Road in China was dotted with outposts where traveling merchants could set up and trade goods.
Markets were a central economic force of local and imported trade, but they were also a source of community and information. This was where residents of the area would meet with friends and catch up on the latest news and gossip from close to home and far away, get necessary supplies and perhaps the occasional luxury, and enjoy a day out with their families and friends.
The open market or bazaar was a trade and economy builder as well as entertainment; a place to gather and be around other people. Fast forward a few millennia where we now have social media, the internet, and various broadcast or streaming services where we can get news and order merchandise straight to our doors. We don’t need to go anywhere if we don’t want to. But we still love going to markets, fairs, and giant garage sales, because if there’s anything constant about the human condition, it’s our inherent need for social interaction and connection, however brief or sustained.
It’s fun to strike up conversations with a like-minded stranger at the produce stall, or haggle over the price of a handmade scarf with a willing merchant. Bowman recognized that the success of the Downtown Market lay in expanding it, with a diverse selection of merchants that would appeal to a wider group of people once they saw it.
“I said, ‘What do we want to do with this? What’s the goal?” She ticks off a list on her hand. “Well, we need more vendors. We need people to come and shop to support the vendors. So we need to find a way to get word out about who’s here and what they’re offering, and hopefully help drive sales so they can keep coming back and stick with us. Then the hope is that it will draw more vendors. We keep building on that, one merchant at a time.” She pauses. “That was for starters.” The initial plan was to make the Market a tie-in event for weekend downtown commerce; a destination for locals to converge on every Saturday.
Dawn started working her contacts and talking to more potential vendors, many of whom set up shop at multiple open markets in the region. Word started to spread, and with a shoestring advertising budget, Dawn turned to social media to help drive promotions. Facebook Live became a major weapon in the arsenal; Dawn took every opportunity to interview the vendors and show viewers the increasingly growing arrangement of booths, or broadcast a livestream of the musicians playing out front. The official Facebook page started gaining followers at a stunningly rapid pace as a response, going from 8000 to 20,000 in just two years.
“It was nuts, but it was because the vendors would share posts and videos on their own social media, and it just grew exponentially,” Dawn says. “Almost everything was by word of mouth and community support. It was truly a grassroots effort, and it succeeded beyond my expectations. Now we probably have an average of around five thousand customers coming into Ocala each week for this.” Two years ago, the total number of vendors could fit under the open-air pavilion on Third Street, but if you take a stroll down there on a recent Saturday, the difference is remarkable. Vendors spill out onto the sidewalk and even into the street like a living cornucopia of everything from produce, jewelry, clothing, food, homemade crafts, plants, and even furniture.
“The merchants are so willing to talk to customers about what they do and how they create and craft their products. They’re really invested and care about what they’re offering, and they help each other out,” Bowman says. “They share each other’s stuff on social media and boost sales. I could go on and on about every one of them; they’re amazing. It’s fun for me to walk around and check in with them to see how they’re doing; that’s a big part of why this is so rewarding.” This was supposed to be a part-time, temporary job, but that notion rapidly lost steam and became ridiculous before long. Dawn was way too invested, and without much ceremony, the ‘interim’ part of her title was jettisoned. Turns out the right person already had the job.
“I just fell in love with the Market and the people and I realized, ‘Wait, I don’t really want you guys to find someone else,” she says. “So never mind! I got this!” She and her assistant Lynne Kallay-Brown are starting to work on plans for the upcoming Christmas season, brainstorming more themed events, and considering live musicians to perform. After 24 months of hustle, networking, and organizing, Dawn and her small team have turned things around so well that the Market is no longer in the red. In fact, it’s earning enough to sustain the team’s salaries, pay the setup and breakdown crews, and even enough to pay the entertainers a modest fee. The City was pleasantly flummoxed at the turnaround.
With a breakneck schedule as a Showcase realtor – another challenging job she does with her signature, almost superhuman focus and creativity – plus the Market, tending her horses and spending time with family, she has a full plate almost literally from sunup to sunset. But she prefers it that way. She’d be bored otherwise, she says. When it’s something she’s so passionate about and enjoys so much, it’s not really work. “I don’t think I have it in me to walk away from it now; I’ve grown right along with the Market and watched it not only recover, but really thrive,” she says. “So I want to do everything I can to make sure it keeps growing.”
If you would like to learn  more about our agents please check out some of our past “Agent Stories”.
Chris Workman | REALTOR® and Ocala Polo Player

Chris Workman | REALTOR® and Ocala Polo Player

Our own Chris Workman (an OMCAR Rookie of the Year 2017 and Outstanding Achiever two years in a row 2017-2018, we must note!) is playing with Team Resolute on Saturday, June 26th, 2021 at Ocala Horse Park, and he’s jazzed about it. But honestly, it doesn’t take much...

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