Apples and oranges

Parking lots aren’t comparable, farmers’ market vendors insist

MARKET DAY <br> The Saturday Farmers Market in Chico has become so popular it’s almost overcrowded, and conflicts among drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians have increased. That’s why a committee of the City Council is looking at moving it. Market vendors, however, want to stay put and expand farther into the parking lot at Wall and Second streets.

The Saturday Farmers Market in Chico has become so popular it’s almost overcrowded, and conflicts among drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians have increased. That’s why a committee of the City Council is looking at moving it. Market vendors, however, want to stay put and expand farther into the parking lot at Wall and Second streets.

LaDona Knigge became a voice of reason in a City Hall conference room crowded elbow to elbow with local farmers, downtown merchants and other community members who were ready to brawl over the potential relocation of Chico’s Saturday Farmers Market.

Amid polarizing discussion at an Internal Affairs Committee meeting Tuesday (Aug. 11), Knigge, a Chico State geography and planning professor, offered that one of her classes could evaluate the pros and cons of moving the weekly market two blocks south to the Municipal Center’s parking lot.

“I have no dog in the fight,” said Knigge, referring to her impartiality in the debate.

Her suggestion comes into play about a month after a meeting at which the IAC, which is made up of three City Council members, considered modifying the market’s existing boundaries within the city-owned lot at East Second and Wall streets. The idea was to address safety issues—mainly concerns about the vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists trying to dodge each other at the lot’s entrance and exit nearest to Second Street. Committee members were weighing the option of flipping the market’s location in the lot—now in the middle rows and west rail—to the two northernmost rows, plus the adjoining sidewalks.

But instead of getting what they viewed as a compromise, farmers said they watched as discussion evolved into the possibility of moving the location of the market altogether. By meeting’s end, Councilman Andy Holcombe had directed city staff to investigate the feasibility of relocating the year-round event to the City Hall lot between East Fourth and Fifth streets—a move that caught farmers off guard.

“We were blindsided,” said Terry Givens, manager of the Saturday market, by telephone this week.

Givens is executive director of the Chico Certified Farmers Market (CCFM), which organizes the Saturday market, as well as the seasonal market at the North Valley Plaza and two others in Paradise and Oroville. After last month’s meeting, she began investigating whether the municipal parking area could accommodate the market.

As recently as Sunday, she spent time chalking out some of the areas where vendors—80 of them—would set up their booths. At first glance, she thought the lot would work. After all, city staff had measured it at 50,000 square feet, much larger than the existing site’s 28,000 square feet. By the end of the experiment, though, Givens estimated the space provides enough room for only about 70 sellers.

“There’s going to be a lot of big, big differences,” she said, “and not all of the vendors will be able to go—no way.”

The problem, she said, is the layout of the parking area. Specifically, the concrete islands—quite large barriers in some instances—breaking up the asphalt into rows. A presentation during Tuesday’s meeting by the director of the city’s Building and Services Department shed light on Givens’ concern.

Fritz McKinley noted that parking bumpers in front of the islands create another obstacle and pointed to a couple of enlarged photographs of staged concession booths, complete with truck and canopy. The experiment included facing the vehicle straight in a parking stall as well as perpendicular across several spaces closest to the barrier. Depending on the configuration, the pathway between vendors—the area where customers walk to browse produce and other wares—varied from 4 feet to 9 feet.

McKinley pointed out that two large speed bumps inside the lot also could prove problematic for pedestrians.

During a break in the meeting, commissioners and city staff helped set up additional seating for the overflow crowd, which likely was buoyed by a series of viral e-mails that asked for support of the market and brought up the specter of a long-debated parking structure—an option McKinley was adamant that the city is not exploring.

When Holcombe weighed in on the issue, he mentioned having recently visited Madison, Wis., and the city’s giant market, which encompasses eight linear blocks. The question for Chico, he asked, is how to provide the best possible market in the downtown area. Moving it to the other site falls in line with the city’s vision—and his own vision—to draw people to the southern portion of the region.

“I think this is worth studying,” he said of the relocation option. “Those who say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ I think you’re being disingenuous, frankly.”

Holcombe noted that the market appears to have outgrown its current space and said he’s heard comments and complaints about the popular event.

Those who operate nearest to the market were the most vocal among critics that included prominent businesspeople such as David Halimi, owner of Diamond W Western Wear; Steve Catterall, owner of Olde Gold Estate Jewelry; and Robert Mowry, owner of Panama Bar and Café and Chico Event Center.

Mowry said the market hurts his Second Street bar and café, which he claims does better business on Tuesday than Saturday. He said that moving the event to the alternate location would free up parking for his customers. The businessman has been in Chico for 20 years and said he’s watched the market grow year after year.

Givens, a former farmer who’s managed the Saturday market for 13 of the 17 years it’s been housed at its current site, acknowledged the event’s increasing popularity, something she attributes to a sour economy and a growing trend to shop locally.

On Saturdays, Givens sets up shop at the corner, watching foot traffic, answering questions and dealing with problems. She said business is up an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent over the past couple of years, and that relocation likely would hurts sales.

“We do not want to move; that’s the reality of it,” she said. “We don’t see the reasoning.”

Givens had longstanding plans in the Bay Area on Tuesday and didn’t attend the meeting. Considering it’s the absolute height of the farming season, she wasn’t sure how many supporters would be able to make it, either. As it turns out, a majority of those who spoke at the meeting—farmers and community members—echoed her sentiments.

Several marketgoers said the event is a boon to downtown, because they shop at adjacent businesses after purchasing produce.

Cheryl King, of Friends of Downtown, named a coffee shop, two women’s boutiques and a sporting-goods store that she claimed benefited from spillover patrons.

At a couple of points, committee members were faced with pointed public comments that devolved into barbs that a decision to move the event could spell “political suicide.” At other times, the meeting appeared to transform into a quasi-workshop, with speakers barking out an array of suggestions: Expand the market at its current site, move it to Sunday, move it to City Plaza. Of course, nothing set right with everyone.

In the end, IAC Chairman Tom Nickell, a retired CHP officer, wondered aloud how his concern over traffic transformed into discussion about moving the Saturday market.

“I don’t know how my original idea came to this,” he said.

At the meeting’s close, Holcombe and Councilman Jim Walker, the third committee member, voted to have both sites studied by Knigge’s Chico State students over the semester, and to review the study at its completion, which should occur at around the same time as the end of the franchise agreement between CCFM and the city. The study would cost the city nothing.

In the meantime, Knigge and her class have a lot of work to do. The professor said she’s been keeping her eyes peeled for a service-learning project that would give her students—mostly seniors and graduate students—real-world experience while helping the community.

“I see it as a good service to Chico,” she said.