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'Great Renaissance': Penn Market sees new life and, possibly, building upgrades

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

In 2016, when she first opened Nana's Oven, Deb Volker predicted that a "great Renaissance" was coming for the historical Penn Market, which had fallen on hard times.

Today, that early optimism — which at the time seemed like a wild hope — has largely been realized.

"I think that the local communities, especially the minority communities, dedicated themselves to opening businesses so that we can have a thriving marketplace," said Volker, who opened her bakery seven years ago, when the arrival of three new small businesses was something of an anomaly.

Deb Volkner of Nana's Oven at the Penn Market in York on Friday, March 31, 2023.

The market, built in 1876 and expanded in 1890, is now fully occupied with a vibrant array of restaurants, gift shops and artisans. According to Downtown Inc, two-thirds of those businesses are minority-owned, and half of the vendors are women.

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"There are a lot of beautiful things happening right here," said Mark Simpson Sr., owner of Ethel's Barbeque and Catering. "I mean, Saturday is like a family reunion here. It is so wonderful in here." 

Tight-knit group: Simpson's business has been at the market for 11 years. He's one of a group of local entrepreneurs who've revitalized the market.

Volker said most of the tight-knit group are Yorkers.

“They remember coming here when they were kids with their grandparents," she said. "There’s a couple of them that had parents or grandparents that had the different stands here.”

Chris and Bev Awkward, owners of Yogi’s Oh Yeah Jerky, are banking on the market's revitalization.

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“A lot of people were out of work, couldn’t go to work, so they started their own businesses," Chris Awkward said. "We’ve been doing this since before COVID; COVID actually slowed us down, so we decided to go for broke this year.”

Mark Simpson of Ethel's Barbeque & Catering at the Penn Market in York on Friday, March 31, 2023.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Downtown Inc Director Jonathan Desmarais said the number of vendors at Penn Market has doubled. Back in 2020, there were 10 vendors open on Saturdays. Now, there are 24 regularly open vendors.

Pursuing a grant: Meanwhile, the city is pursuing grant funding that would help it make upgrades to the aging building. At the top of the list are improvements to the building's electrical infrastructure and HVAC system.

In 2020 the Redevelopment Authority of York got a notification that they could apply for a $1.5 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant from the state, said RDA Executive Director Blanda Nace. 

However, before the city could even apply for the grant, they had to prove they could match the grant and provide $1.5 million as well, bringing the total grant up to $3 million, Nace said. In March 2022, the city signed a resolution allocating the $1.5 million, and the application process began. 

Chris "YOGI" Awkward of Yogi's Oh Yeah Jerky at the Penn Market in York on Friday, March 31, 2023.

The city funded the grant with money from the sale of its wastewater treatment facility.  

Some vendors have expressed concerns about how long it is taking to start construction, with a few showing up to a York City Council meeting in March. At the meeting, Simpson voiced concerns that the RACP grant would expire before it could be allocated if the city did not make progress soon on construction plans.

Slow process: In an interview, Nace said the RACP is a “complicated grant” and has several steps the RDA has to go through before construction can begin. The application, which was submitted in July of 2022, had 17 sections and took three months to fill out, Nace said. 

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Once the application was submitted, the state reviewed it and returned to the RDA with questions, Nace said. The organization provided all the answers. The next step, he said, will see the state assign a third-party consultant to make sure the RDA stays in compliance with the grant and understands the grant guidelines. 

The RDA got its grant consultant assigned this February, and in late March, the consultant reviewed the application with Nace, he said. 

“It’s not a quick-turnaround grant; they don’t just write you a check,” Nace said. On March 31, Nace got an email from the state that said once the RDA provides the completed drawings from their architect and bidding for contractors, the project can move forward. 

The Penn Market in York on Friday, March 31, 2023.

Nace expects the architect drawings will be complete by August or September and once submitted, the project can move forward. He gave a rough estimate that construction bidding may be complete by the end of 2023, after which construction can begin. 

Many vendors are excited for the grant because it could boost Penn Market’s prominence and reach in York City.

“This is our livelihood for most of us,” said Chris Awkward, who's been monitoring the grant situation closely. “I actually work another job, so I have something to back me up. A lot of these guys do not, so we're hoping to get this grant money and open up six days a week.”

Currently Penn Market is open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. A list of vendors and more information about the market can be found at its website

— Reach Noel Miller at or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.