Finding a middle ground
The City Council’s vote will allow the market to stay put as various stakeholders determine the future of the event
The Chico Certified Farmers’ Market is guaranteed another 18 months in its current location at the city parking lot at Second and Wall streets, but its long-term home will be up for debate over that course of time by a committee comprising a cross-section of the community.
That year-and-a-half timeline, along with the formation of an ad-hoc group, was approved by unanimous vote of the Chico City Council Tuesday evening (June 18) toward the end of the panel’s all-day budget session, an exhaustive 15-hour-long meeting that included more than three hours’ worth of discussion on the market alone.
At the beginning of that discussion, City Manager Brian Nakamura explained how the intention of severing the city’s franchise agreement with the CCFM was to finally put an end to the longstanding contention between farmers and the nearby businesses who say the use of the city parking lot on Saturdays hurts their sales. Terminating the agreement would have forced the CCFM to forge a new agreement with the city at another location by the end of this year.
But doing so under those conditions did not sit well with market vendors and representatives, as well as the dozens of customers who showed up at the meeting to weigh in on the merits of the weekly downtown event. (The city put the item on the agenda because it was the last opportunity to give the CCFM the required notice of 180 days prior to the end of its franchise agreement should any changes to the franchise be enacted.)
“It scared everybody. We were being evicted,” said Laurie Noble of Noble Orchards, a 92-year-old Paradise-based apple-growing operation and regular CCFM vendor.
Noble was among the 60 people who signed up to speak on the issue during the public-comment portion of the discussion, though several people, having waited for many hours, didn’t make it through the marathon meeting. All told, about 40 spoke to the issue, two of whom were in favor of terminating the franchise agreement.
Much of the debate centered on the perception of a lack of parking in the downtown region on Saturdays, due primarily to the market. But a couple of downtown business owners countered that assertion as well as charges that the market is detrimental to sales.
Jeff King, owner of Grana, located at the northwest corner of West Second and Wall streets, told the council that his restaurant’s best day for lunch sales is Saturday. King noted how patrons regularly walk into his establishment carrying goods from other downtown businesses. They also don’t appear to have difficulty with parking, he said.
“Not once has a guest ever complained to me about a parking problem, and I’m right across the street, probably 100 feet [from the market],” King said.
A local criminal-defense attorney with downtown offices and the owner of a popular used-books store later echoed King.
Emotions ran high at several points during the meeting. Market supporters appeared extremely frustrated with Mayor Mary Goloff, who had asked for the issue to be agendized. Goloff explained that she felt the city has no greater issue than economic development, and that she brought the market discussion forward to find a solution that works for both the market and nearby merchants.
“I think there’s a missed opportunity if we don’t allow ourselves to have this discussion,” she said.
One point that didn’t go over very well with the gathering was when Goloff stated that “the parking lot belongs to the city of Chico.”
Almost immediately, a majority of those seated in the gallery arose, shouting at the dais such things as, “We are the city of Chico!”
The CCFM had rallied an impressive level of support for keeping the market at its current location. In the week leading up to the meeting, organizers had gathered 1,628 signatures on a petition asking the panel to renew the market’s franchise agreement. Meanwhile, another 687 signatures were gathered online.
At several points during the meeting, supporters referenced a survey conducted four years ago by the classes of Chico State professors Richard Gitleson and LaDona Knigge that found the market actually aided the downtown economy by attracting around 3,000 people to the region.
Back in August 2009, the CCFM and the Internal Affairs Committee were looking at making changes at the Second Street location. But that discussion evolved into talk on whether the market should move to the Chico Municipal Center lot.
Amid the rancor during that meeting, Knigge volunteered her geography class to conduct the survey as a service-learning project. Gitleson ended up joining the effort, along with his recreation class. The results were presented to the IAC in December 2009.
Tuesday evening, Gitleson reiterated the results of the survey, which took more than 90 hours to complete. The data, he said, found that two-thirds of market-goers either had shopped or were planning to shop elsewhere downtown. Two-thirds of the respondents indicated the market was their main reason for coming downtown. Parking analysis found that 88 percent of respondents did not have a difficult time locating a space.
Knigge also spoke before the panel, recalling that she and Gitleson had previously recommended the market and city look at long-term solutions, including finding the event a permanent home.
That never happened.
“We’re kind of stuck and we need to move forward,” she said.
Councilman Sean Morgan, who was not on the council back in 2009, discounted the relevance of the survey, pointing out how it did not include options for other locations.
But as former City Councilman Tom Nickell pointed out, city staff had mapped out other locations, especially the City Municipal Center lot. What was discovered is that the concrete islands in the lot would actually give the CCFM fewer spaces for vendors.
“Every single time [when looking at alternative sites], it did not work,” said Nickell, who was on the council and the IAC four years ago.
Councilman Mark Sorensen didn’t buy the assertion that parking isn’t an issue.
“When folks say we don’t have a parking problem, I reject that right off the bat,” he said.
Sorensen went on to list several ways the market in its current location is detrimental to downtown businesses, including the co-opting of parking, and competing interests between the CCFM vendors and their brick-and-mortar neighbors.
In the end, around 11:30 p.m., the council voted 6-0 (Councilwoman Ann Schwab recused herself because she owns a downtown business) to extend the franchise agreement until Dec. 31, 2014, and to form a committee of stakeholders—CCFM board members, vendors, downtown business owners, parking-plan advocates, local business organizations—charged with collaborating on a market plan that’s best for everyone.