Market moves to stay put
Saturday downtown farmers’ market announces plans for a voter initiative
The ongoing battle between supporters of the Saturday downtown Chico Certified Farmers’ Market and businesses that would like to see it move took a new step this past Saturday, Dec. 28, with the announcement of plans to qualify a city initiative that, if passed, would keep the market on the city parking lot at Second and Wall streets for at least two more years and also allow the market to expand on the site.
The market is no stranger to public and political controversy. Opponents include nearby business owners who say the market takes up valuable parking spaces, thereby deterring potential customers. There was a suggestion to move the market about a block south to the Chico Municipal Center parking lot, but market organizers said the spaces were not deep enough to accommodate the vendors’ stands and didn’t want to mess with the market’s success at its current location.
On May 7, the Chico City Council deadlocked on a 3-to-3 vote to approve a two-year franchise agreement for the market in place of the existing year-to-year agreement. In return, the market had offered to pay $16,000 for power and sewer lines to allow for restrooms. But that would have happened during the construction of the Second Street roundabout, which is now completed. Councilmembers Scott Gruendl, Tami Ritter and Randall Stone voted in favor of that plan, and Mary Goloff, Mark Sorensen and Sean Morgan opposed it. Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who co-owns a downtown business close to the market, abstained from voting, as is required under the rules of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Friends of the Farmers’ Market spokeswoman Cheryl King told those gathered at the market on Saturday that it was time to allow the voters to decide the fate of the market.
“As you know, the farmers’ market was served with an eviction notice effective in December 2014,” King said. “We understand the City Council is deadlocked at this point in time, so we have decided to qualify an initiative for the November 2014 ballot.”
She said organizers have six months to collect 7,500 signatures of registered voters to qualify the initiative. The market said it would increase the amount it pays the city for the space, which is currently $164 a year. Former Mayor Karl Ory said the market was offering “a 500 percent increase over what they are paying now,” which amounts to $820 per year.
“This is a community event,” King said. “It’s not just the farmers’ market. You are the community and the farmers are businesses, and as businesses, they deserve some stability.”
She said the city’s Finance Committee had voted earlier in the year to allow the market to expand into another bay of parking spaces in its current lot. But that proposal also died at the May 7 City Council meeting.
“At a time when we should be emphasizing local food, sustainability and community events, this market serves all of those: local businesses, local food, sustainability,” King said. “I don’t understand what the city doesn’t understand.”
She said supporters expect to meet with some resistance to the proposal, without mentioning names.
“We think there is some rather big-money opposition out there,” she said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
King mentioned a study done by LaDona Knigge, a Chico State professor who, with students, conducted an economic and parking survey in 2009 with results indicating downtown businesses are not negatively impacted by the market’s location.
“You can ask most businesses downtown and they will tell you that they love the farmers’ market because people shop here and then they come down to the businesses—the bookstores, the Upper Crust, Grana, North Rim, Anika Burke and Mountain Sports are all supportive of the market,” said King, whose son owns Grana.
Former Chico Mayor Mike McGinnis also spoke in favor of keeping the market where it is.
“I really think the voters are going to decide that we need to keep the farmers’ market here, and I think that it’s great that we’re going to get to do that,” he said. “In real estate, they say it’s location, location, location. This is the perfect location. It really does bring people into the downtown.”
Farmer and market vendor James Brock said the city government is in a tough position.
“I think we have to give some accolades to the city for supporting the market,” he said. “Certainly there’s been controversy and they’ve had a lot of pressure on them from certain businesses, but the market’s been here 21 years and it’s proven itself.
“I’m a farmer here and our business has increased significantly over the years, and it’s getting better and better, and I spend my money in this town,” Brock said. “We all do. We all support Chico. I think it’s a huge economic engine for this community and we should be encouraging it.”
Councilwoman Schwab, who was shopping at the farmers’ market during the Saturday press conference, said she supported the idea behind the initiative.
“I think since the council can’t decide whether or not to move the market or keep it where it is, it’s the right thing to take it to the people and let the people decide,” she said. “This market is immensely popular where it is, and so bringing it to the people will let them decide.”
Former City Councilman Bob Evans was also at the market.
“I agree we need to save the market,” he said. “I think the value of the market is extreme to Chico. It’s a beautiful market, but I’m not sure it should stay where it is at. I think there are valuable arguments to keep it here—and I’ve worked with the market in the past to see what could be done—but I think there might be better locations, and I wish both sides would start talking about it.”
A day after the press conference, Councilwoman Goloff weighed in on Facebook in response to criticism of her by former City Councilman Tom Nickell, who’d also spoken at the conference in support of keeping the Saturday farmers’ market at its current location.
Nickell had called Goloff, who’d also attended the market during the press conference, “unprofessional and confrontational as always to the public” on a Facebook post.
Goloff responded: “I thought it was my responsibility as a policy maker to ask questions based on what I believe best serves the overall community I serve rather than maintaining blind allegiance to one constituency group. People who disagree with me will no doubt continue to spout rhetoric to the contrary but, in my heart, I know my intention since last spring has been to support bringing a true cross-section of people to the table to discuss this issue and the various options available.”