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Ontario community rallies behind fire-devastated St. Jacobs Farmer’s Market

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Investigators from the Ontario Fire Marshal's office survey the remains of the main building at the St. Jacobs Farmers Market in Waterloo, Ontario
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Investigators from the Ontario Fire Marshal's office survey the remains of the main building at the St. Jacobs Farmers Market in Waterloo, Ontario, Monday, September 2, 2013 following an overnight fire which destroyed the building.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

A small Ontario community was left devastated this week after its landmark farmer's market, tourist draw and cultural hub was gutted by a massive fire. The loss will leave a mark on the local township, but recovery plans are already in the making and locals are clamoring to help those worst affected by the blaze.

The St. Jacobs Farmer's Market, a cultural touchstone for the Waterloo Region, went up in flames early Monday morning. Local firefighters fought the blaze and managed to keep it limited to one of the several wood buildings on site. That building, however, was completely destroyed. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Sixty vendors lost their storefronts, their wares and their way of life. Fire officials say the damage is estimated at $2 million, but the impact could be far worse.

The St. Jacobs is a historic location, and an integral one in the fabric of the Waterloo Region. Residents gather at the market, do their shopping and support local business. Many of the vendors in the gutted buildings have been there since the 1980s.

[ Related: St. Jacobs Farmers' Market fire causes estimated $2M in damage ]

Todd Cowan, mayor of the Woolwich Township, where the market is located, said the loss of the market would leave a devastating mark on the community.

“The St. Jacobs Market is an iconic site in the Township and is an established, well known destination for tourism across the province. The Township of Woolwich will work with the community and the owners to help re-establish the market as soon as possible,” Cowan said.

The aim is to get the surviving portions of the market back in operation as quickly as possible to limit the economic effect of the fire. The site's next planned day of business is Thursday, and organizers say they outdoor vendors and unaffected buildings will be open.

The fall is an important time for vendors at the farmer's market, many of whom rely on selling their stock ahead of the winter slowdown.

But the loss of the market strikes a chord that echoes much deeper than fresh produce and souvenirs. It is a matter of community, of supporting one's neighbour. St. Jacobs Farmer's Market management says they have been inundated by calls asking how people can support the vendors who have lost their places of business.

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A Facebook support page called “Hope For St. Jacobs Farmers Market” garnered 11,000 supporters in less than 48 hours. Conversations are well under way about how to help fund reconstruction, if necessary, and how to support the affected shops.

The nearby Cambridge Fall Fair, which begins this Thursday, has offered to find retail spots for any shopkeepers affected by the fire. A local resident has also put together a list of those vendors, including addresses for alternative locations where their products can be bought.

The market itself says they are working on a plan to help the vendors, and are trying to find space for temporary shops in the outdoor market and unaffected buildings.

"We have always said that the market is not the buildings. It's the people the vendors, customers, the whole community. We're very humbled by the sense of ownership and pride that so many people have for this market," organizers wrote in a statement.

Cultural hubs such as the St. Jacobs Farmer's Market inspire intense dedication from nearby residents. It becomes more than a building; it becomes the heart of the community.

The site will be 60 vendors thinner when it re-opens on Thursday and the following weekend. But one suspects the crowds will be no smaller.

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