Race course to host a flea market with a big difference

The Mercato Market will take over 10 acres at the Atlantic City Race Course on weekends starting in May. It will have music, carnivals, food trucks, and 600 to 800 vendors.
The Mercato Market will take over 10 acres at the Atlantic City Race Course on weekends starting in May. It will have music, carnivals, food trucks, and 600 to 800 vendors. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 18, 2014

They don't necessarily like the term flea market for a new shopping, entertainment, and food venue coming in May to the grounds of the historic Atlantic City Race Course.

If the Mercato Market resembles a flea market at all, say husband-and-wife creators Dirk DaCosta and Dina Guzzardo, it's one on a strong dose of steroids. They plan a weekly scene of musical acts, carnivals, and food-truck caravans to round out the offerings of 600 to 800 vendors.

"I would say it is the outdoor market reinvented," DaCosta, 51, a business consultant by trade and a native of London, said last week as he and Guzzardo, a former mortgage broker, finalized plans for the mammoth undertaking.

It will run Saturdays and Sundays from May to December. Vendor spaces rent for about $30 a day.

For the market's opening May 4, Guzzardo, 44, has booked former Flock of Seagulls lead guitarist Eddie Berner, who will perform - and cook - as he films his new reality show, Rockin' Road Grill. Later in the summer, the Landsharks, a Jimmy Buffett tribute band, will perform. A Frank Sinatra tribute weekend, a classic car show, a Harley-Davidson festival, and other events are planned. A nearly monthlong Winter Wonderland will round out the year, she said.

A German-style beer garden, to be operated by the racetrack, will give patrons a place to sit and dine on selections from food trucks. Food will include hot dogs, hamburgers, a raw bar, barbecue, sushi, and tacos.

On a typical weekend, Guzzardo and DaCosta say, they hope to host as many as 15,000 people a day. Admission will be free, although a nominal fee will be charged to park in one of the racetrack's 9,000 spaces.

Local officials gave unanimous support to the plan, saying they hope it will boost the flagging fortunes of the race course, built in 1946 with a grandstand large enough to hold 35,000. The horse track has been a steady loser in a tug-of-war for gambling dollars with New Jersey's casino industry. Though the track remains open for simulcast races throughout the year and operates a short weeklong race season every April, it has not had a full racing season since 1996.

The Mercato Market will operate on about 10 of the racetrack's 250 acres, adjacent to the Hamilton Mall. Guzzardo and DaCosta say the location offers quick access from the Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway, and U.S. Route 40.

"When we came up with the concept, we decided that since we're so close to the Shore, we wanted to have something here that would appeal to the entire family," Guzzardo said.

The region has long hosted such markets, flea and otherwise. The Berlin Farmers & Flea Market may be the granddaddy of them all in New Jersey, held every Saturday and Sunday since 1940. There is the Columbus Flea Market, the quirky Thursday, Saturday, Sunday venue where one can find everything from car parts to fine art. It has been a fixture since the 1950s.

But table after table of tube socks and knock-off designer sunglasses just don't cut it anymore: In recent years, the concept has been elevated to new standards, evolving into trendy and often heavily curated venues where hipsters sip vegan Ethiopian coffee while searching for nothing in particular through a morass of stalls and tents in a rented parking lot.

The now defunct Brooklyn Flea Philly, a local version of the New York powerhouse, began last spring at the Piazza at Schmidt's in Northern Liberties. It ended its Philadelphia run in late October. But the same management group will return to Philly next month with a venue called Franklin Flea, running Saturdays from April 19 through May 24 at the southwest corner of Eighth and Market Streets in Center City.

The ultra cool Clover Market, which sets up shop 10 times a year in Ardmore and in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, has been going strong since 2010, according to founder Janet Long.

"It was an idea that was waiting to happen," Long said of the hybrid of the old-fashioned flea market and the newfangled concept of selling higher-end vintage finds and handmade, one-of-kind items in a "pop-up venue." Long heavily curates her markets, requiring vendors to reapply each season.

"It ultimately creates a setting for this unique kind of exchange between the customers and the merchant or artist that you won't find anywhere else," said Long, who was inspired by the great outdoor markets of Europe. "And markets like these have become popular outings for people because they tap into a desire to find something unique and authentic that no one else has or may be wearing."


jurgo@phillynews.com

609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo

www.inquirer.com/downashore

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