Saturday downtown farmers’ market has no permanent home
“This is my religion!” said a beaming Diane Prince on a recent Saturday morning at the downtown Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, waving her hands in a gesture that attempted to take in the entire busy market area. Like thousands of other locals, Prince attends the Saturday-morning market regularly to buy such things as fresh produce and flowers, get a bite to eat, and socialize with friends.
“I go throughout the year, no matter what the weather is,” said Prince, a longtime Chico resident originally from New York City. “It has such a great spirit of community. If I have out-of-town friends visiting, I always hope it is over a Saturday so I can give them a glimpse of how cool Chico is.”
While others may not speak of the market in such worshipful terms, it should be clear to anyone spending even a short period of time at this definitively Chico-esque event—located in the city parking lot at East Second and Wall streets—that many locals love the market.
But the future of the weekly event, in its current location for the past 20 years, is uncertain. On May 7, after discussing the city of Chico Finance Committee’s recommendation to approve a two-year lease for the market in its current location—instead of its usual year-to-year lease—in exchange for the CCFM’s offer to pay $16,000 for power and sewer lines to be extended to the market’s lot, the City Council deadlocked in a 3-3 vote (one council member with a nearby business abstained), effectively stopping forward movement of the project.
As recently retired CN&R Editor Robert Speer wrote in a recent story (see “Exercise in futility,” Newslines, May 9), “It was a one-time opportunity that would take advantage of the downtown couplet project to bring in lines at a reduced cost and replace the sometimes-gross current portable toilets with temporary bathrooms connected to the sewer lines.”
Certain council members were apparently swayed by the resurfaced concerns of some downtown business owners who believe the market negatively affects their sales on Saturday. The idea of moving the location to the Chico Municipal Center parking lot and/or the day of the market, to Sunday, was brought up.
Nancy Lindahl, owner of downtown specialty home-goods store Zucchini & Vine and card shop Magna Carta, was quoted in Speer’s article as telling the council that evening, “Businesses are closing downtown. This is more of an emergency than you realize.”
It’s 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday, half an hour before the Saturday market is due to open for business. Farmers are hustling in the still-cool morning air to get their booths set up. By about 7:15, early-bird customers are cruising the aisles, planning their first-pick strategy as vendors artfully arrange baskets of freshly picked raspberries and strawberries, and mounds of squash, beets, lettuce and potatoes.
“It’s great! The farmers’ market has really grown in the last few years,” offered Joanie Bosque, employee at California Organic Flowers, as she placed bouquets of sunflowers in containers of water, stepping back every so often to eye her work.
Bosque commented on the farmers’-market situation briefly as she moved quickly to get set up: “My personal opinion is to grow on what’s already working. I think doing a public survey would be really helpful. Balancing [the many] interests [involved] is important.
But, in fact, a survey on the market has already been done.
Bruce Balgooyen, a longtime local farmer and market vendor with a nearby stall, cited statistics from a 2009 study done by Chico State geography and planning professor LaDona Knigge and recreation, hospitality and parks-management professor Richard Gitleson, which found that for two-thirds of those surveyed, going to the farmers’ market was their main reason for coming downtown on a Saturday. Two-thirds of the respondents said they planned to shop, eat or drink downtown either before or after they attended the market.
Balgooyen talked while carefully positioning huge, leafy organic lettuces in big plastic display tubs. “The farmers’-market membership, by a wide margin, is in favor of staying on Saturday, not moving to Sunday,” he said. “And they’re also strongly in favor of staying where we are. If you check around the country, the most successful farmers’ markets are mostly on Saturdays and mostly in prime downtown locations. The first thing any business needs is customers, and we bring the customers into the downtown area.”
James Brock, Balgooyen’s business partner for the past eight years, chimed in. “There’s an umbilical cord between the market and the epicenter of downtown,” Brock said. “So customers come back and forth. If we cut the umbilical cord by moving to the City Hall lot, it potentially could impact the market negatively, as well as downtown business. I think downtown and the farmers’ market are one. I think that’s why we’re so successful, why we got the national recognition.”
The Chico Certified Farmers’ Market was, in fact, mentioned in an April 1, 2006, Sunset magazine article titled “Chico spring break” as one of the highlights of any trip to Chico. More recently, vendor Dave Miller, whose Miller’s Bake House booth graces the west end of the market every Saturday, was featured in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, the latest book by famous good-food guru Michael Pollan.
The Saturday market provides an “economic-multiplier effect for this region,” said Brock, a former high-school history and economics teacher. “I think this is one of the most powerful economic engines in the community and it can get even better. … We all need to work together, not emphasize differences, and I think it’ll change positively for everyone.”
But, he acknowledged, “Farmers and merchants have been going at it since the Middle Ages, so …”
“We felt like we were being very generous by offering to pay for the [hookup for new, semi-permanent] bathrooms,” said Lance Alldrin, a CCFM board member. Alldrin, along with his three sons, operates the Alldrin & Sons Alaska Salmon booth at the Saturday market. “We basically said … we’re willing to pay for and bring in portable bathrooms on Saturday mornings and haul them away on Saturday afternoons. … [Second Street] will be torn up through June—if we opted to do it a year from now, it’s going to cost a heck of a lot more than $16,000!”
As CCFM board member and advertising director Reid Seibold pointed out, “Legally, we have to have a bathroom within 50 feet of the market. We want better facilities … and we don’t want to send people to downtown businesses [to use the restroom].”
Alldrin said that he does not want the market to be held on Sunday as he and his sons attend church then, and he “would have to hire someone outside of the family to work the market.” (A number of the Chico market’s vendors also work at Sacramento’s farmers’ market on Sunday.)
As for a venue change, “Saturday at the municipal lot—that would be my second choice. But that lot has just as many issues—we still don’t have bathrooms … and it actually has less room for vendor booths.”
That lot, in front of the Chico Municipal Center, two blocks to the south of its current location, is where Lindahl, owner of Zucchini & Vine, would like to see the market relocated.
The municipal-center lot “is so much prettier,” she said. “There could be tables for people to sit and eat at. There are grassy areas to sit and eat a peach or chat with friends. There is a PA system and electricity, so you could do cooking demonstrations and music.
“Overall, the area is much calmer and more inviting,” said Lindahl. “I also think it would be beneficial to draw people deeper into downtown. The businesses in the block of Main Street by the Senator [Theatre] would benefit, the [City] Plaza might see more use than just the homeless, and it could revitalize the ‘lost’ block of Main between Third and Fourth streets by making it more interesting to retail tenants.”
Lindahl referenced an informal email questionnaire she sent out to 26 unnamed downtown retail-business owners on the afternoon of May 7, before her appearance at the City Council meeting that evening. The questionnaire consisted of three questions: 1) “Is the farmers’ market impacting your Saturday business as it gets bigger and more successful?”; 2) “Would you support having the market on Sunday at [its current location] without a sewer hookup or electrical utilities, but with the market expanding to all four rows in the parking lot?”; and 3) “Would you say that you do not support renewing the market franchise for two years at [its current location] for a Saturday market with sewer hookup and electrical utilities?”
“Of the 26 inquiries, there were 21 responses,” she said. “Twenty-one said the market did impact their Saturday business in a negative way because it tied up parking. The four businesses that said they felt no impact were on Broadway within a block of the parking structure.”
“I wish nothing but excellence for the market,” Lindahl said. “Our fight is only with people who want to keep everything the way it is. I can assure you, the market is in good shape and is very much a destination. Market customers will follow it a block and a half without question.”
At the Saturday market, Adams Olive Ranch vendor Bob Adams was animated: “There’s a hundred downtown business people right here—why doesn’t our vote count? We need to stay here! What right does anybody have to move [the market]?” Adams is also against changing the date of the market to Sundays.
“The customers don’t want the date to change,” offered Ana Naveira, who runs the Leonardo’s Spanish-food booth, along with her husband, Luis Saenz, next door to Adams’ stall. As for Sunday, “Why? What is the reason for having it moved to Sunday?” she asked. “The [downtown] stores aren’t open [on Saturday] until 10 or 11, anyway. …
“I’d like to see the farmers’ market like it is in Europe, in Spain and France—a [year-round] roofed structure with legs.”
Master baker Miller, at his Miller’s Bake House stall, offered a more conciliatory tone. “It has to work for everybody. If we really are affecting downtown businesses in a negative way, then we have to come up with a different solution,” Miller said. “But any changes will affect 80 different [farmers’ market] businesses—200, if you’re counting all the businesses that sell here [year-round]. So we really have to know that it’s a net negative for downtown. I’m not convinced of that yet.”
Lindahl’s concern over the recent closing of several downtown businesses is well-founded. However, the vacancy rate of downtown businesses is actually lower than the city-wide rate—5 percent, as of late last year, compared to 7 percent, respectively, according to senior city planner Shawn Tillman (see “Closing time,” CN&R, May 2, 2013). That positive news aside, some downtown business owners remain convinced that the Saturday market is detrimental to their business.
“The farmers’ market has a negative effect because of the parking,” said Cecilia Richardson, owner of the African Connection, an Afro-centric specialty shop inside the Garden Walk Mall. Richardson explained that “customers want you to order something for them, but they say they won’t come in on Saturday to pick it up because you have to go round and round and round [looking] for parking.” She would like to see the Saturday market either move to the municipal-center lot or change its day of operation to Sunday.
“Sometimes people misunderstand us in the Garden Walk,” Richardson said. “Customers of the farmers’ market will come in and start fights, saying that we want to close down the farmers’ market. That’s not what the idea is. Just move, so our customers can get parking.”
Richardson said that her business is “very, very slow on Saturday mornings, between the time we open at 10 until after 2:30. Sometimes we’re just giving keys to the toilet to farmers’-market customers.”
Anne Ennis, owner of British specialty shop Brambley Cottage, down the hall from African Connection, cited the recent Mother’s Day holiday as proof of what she perceives as the market’s general deleterious effect on her business.
“The Thursday and Friday [before Mother’s Day] were great days for business,” Ennis said. “But we did about 50 percent on Saturday [the day before Mother’s Day] of [the business] we did on Friday. …
“The farmers’ market tells us that it brings business to downtown Chico. It does—but to the farmers’ market,” she said. “What they seem to forget is people don’t go to a farmers’ market and buy produce and flowers and baked goods—perishables—and put them in their car and then go shopping. It doesn’t take a space scientist to figure that out.”
A block away from the Garden Walk Mall on Main Street, Lori Powers—co-owner, along with Becky Shadd, of the popular Upper Crust Bakery & Eatery—gave a different summation of the market’s impact.
“I find it hard to believe that there would be any downtown businessperson that would not see the market as a driving force for participation in the downtown environment,” said Powers. “Even if any one specific downtown business does not benefit on that market occasion, the fact is that it reconfirms the downtown as a community center. It plants in people’s heads that [shopping downtown] is part of their pattern, as a core function of their lives. [The market] brings people into this geography, and that spills out [to the downtown area].”
The Upper Crust “very much benefits” from the Saturday market, she said.
Adam and Kate Rich are seated on folding chairs near the back of their van, which is parked on Third Street next to the buzzing Saturday market; their two children, ages 2 and 4, are seated at the rear of the open vehicle, munching on burritos and tamales. The Rich family moved to Chico from Davis two years ago; Adam is assistant principal at Paradise High School.
“They have a designated covered space in Davis for their farmers’ market,” which is located in a park setting—the city’s Central Park, Adam Rich pointed out. “What that made us do was hang out there—and for many hours—to meet people, stay for lunch, listen to live music.”
The couple would like to see the market moved to downtown’s City Plaza “or some place that’s more like a park space,” he said. “But having it in a parking lot kind of takes away parking for downtown businesses. We come downtown, and we eat and get our groceries [at the market] and go home. We rarely spend more than 45 minutes.”
Not far away from the Riches’ car, Richard Coon, chairman of the CCFM board of directors, is sitting at the market-manager’s table, giving out wooden market tokens to EBT customers. Coon—co-owner along with his wife, Christine Hantelman, of Wookey Ranch, which sells grass-fed lamb and pastured poultry at the market—was filling in for market Manager Amber Suppus, who was out of town.
“The whole issue is we need more room and we need more bathrooms,” Coon said. “What we really want is a better customer experience, and to do that, we need more space. We want to bring in more interesting local foods. We have a huge waiting list [of potential vendors].”
He said the CCFM’s proposal to the Finance Committee outlined the market’s three major topics of concern: temporarily expanding the market into the northerly “third aisle” of the parking lot while the Second Street couplet project is underway; upgrading the lot with a portable bathroom structure and possibly an office; and using the farmers’ market as a means to promote Chico as a place to live and as a tourist destination.
“The Finance Committee was unanimous in supporting [our proposal],” he said. “Then, for whatever reason, by the time it got to the City Council, there was a 3-to-3 split. It seems amazing to me that the City Council wouldn’t listen to the Finance Committee.”
On May 15, a little more than a week after the City Council’s stalemate vote, the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market board held its monthly meeting at the Chico Grange Hall. Attended by about 20 vendor-members, as well as CCFM “citizen adviser” and former City Councilman Tom Nickell, the meeting’s main focus was a “continuing update and discussion of CCFM negotiations with the city of Chico with emphasis on strategies to move forward with the DCBA and downtown merchants,” as the agenda outline put it.
“The City Council, in a surprise move, did not go along with the Finance Committee’s recommendation,” began Coon, adding that he believes the market’s franchise agreement will be renewed by the city, “but at the status quo”—a year-to-year lease. “We don’t really know what the council wants,” he said, adding that he was “surprised at [Mayor] Mary Goloff’s response,” referring to the fact that Goloff voted with Councilmen Mark Sorensen and Sean Morgan to deny the approval of the proposed two-year lease.
One vendor expressed concern that the city might be planning to revisit the idea of turning the lot into a parking structure, a proposal that was shelved back in 2006 after more than 6,000 voters signed a referendum opposing fees to fund it.
The city has no such plans: “No, there are no plans for development of the parking lot (City Parking Lot No. 1) pending at this time,” replied Mark Wolfe, director of the city of Chico’s Planning Services Department, when asked via email if the city had any plans to develop the lot, for parking or otherwise.
The City Council’s failure to move forward on the Finance Committee’s recommendations took a number of locals by surprise, including businesswoman Cheryl King, of JM King & Associates, who is also a representative of the group Friends of the Farmers’ Market.
“There are over 100 businesses downtown. All I have is anecdotal evidence from a handful of businesses [the 21 respondents to Lindahl’s email questionnaire] that it [the market] hurts business,” she said. “We had a study done [by Knigge and Gitleson] that proves statistically that there’s a multiplier effect from the money spent at the farmers’ market.
“I say that if you have 3,000 or more people coming downtown and you can’t figure out how to get them in your business, you have a business problem, not a parking problem.”
Councilman Sorensen, however, believes that the market does cause a parking problem. “I hope that the farmers’ market will look at some options for improving the parking situation in that quadrant,” he said recently by phone. “And that may include alternate locations or alternate days.”
Mayor Mary Goloff, when asked for her thoughts, said, via email, “I am always open to feedback from members of the community. Staff will be working with the CCFM board on viable options given the council deadlock on Tuesday night.
“As I stated at the meeting, I believe we have a real opportunity to come together and find a solution that works for the entire community. This is going to take a willingness on the part of everyone involved to be open-minded, flexible and focused on what’s best for Chico.”
As for Knigge, the Chico State professor involved in the market survey, she isn’t surprised to see the issue being discussed yet again.
“I think that decisions about the future of the farmers’ market must emerge from all the interested parties or stakeholders: the farmers of the CCFM, the downtown merchants, the city of Chico and, perhaps most important, the public, who seem to have a limited role in this discussion currently.”