Saturday farmers’ market

Popular event will stay put for at least another year

Local chef Richard Hirshen (left) buys bread from Dave Miller, owner of Miller’s Bake House, last winter at the Saturday Farmers’ Market.

Local chef Richard Hirshen (left) buys bread from Dave Miller, owner of Miller’s Bake House, last winter at the Saturday Farmers’ Market.

cn&R file photo

Chico’s beloved downtown market—the Saturday Farmers’ Market at East Second and Wall streets—isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

City Attorney Lori Barker explained that, since the City Council had taken no action by the beginning of December, the year-to-year franchise agreement between the city and the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market to lease its current location—a city-owned parking lot—extended automatically for the next calendar year.

The news didn’t appear to come as a shock to those gathered during an early morning meeting of the Internal Affairs Committee on Tuesday (Dec. 8). And it definitely relieved a lot of people. Not only the farmers and other vendors who sell at the market, but also the thousands of folks—an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 people (a conservative figure discounting children)—who visit the event to socialize and pick up produce and other goods each Saturday.

“Obviously, coming to the farmers’ market seems to be a ritual, traditional behavior,” said Richard Gitelson, a Chico State professor who counted patrons in October.

Gitelson and LaDona Knigge are the two Chico State professors who volunteered their geography and recreation classes, respectively, to do a free survey of the market as a service-learning project.

Knigge, whose own doctorate research focused on community gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., approached the IAC about doing the project back in August in the midst of debate about moving the market. At the time, a strong contingent of local businesspeople was pushing for the popular event to move two blocks south to the municipal parking lot adjacent to City Hall.

A majority of the complaints had to do with parking issues. Nearby businesses, especially those located in the Garden Walk Mall, claimed the market eats up too many stalls, and that the resulting lack of parking discouraged customers from shopping in the area. The issue became highly contentious at times. One market advocate, for example, told the committee members—City Councilmen Jim Walker, Andy Holcombe and Tom Nickell—that a decision to uproot the event could spell “political suicide.”

The tenor of that summertime discussion was a far cry from the recent IAC meeting. In fact, in comparison with the heated debate among downtown business owners, market vendors and farmers, and the city leaders a few months ago, the tone of the meeting was downright cordial.

Most of those in attendance were there to hear the results of the survey—a project Gitelson said took his students 90 hours over three weeks. Among the more interesting results was a finding that two-thirds of market-goers said that they either had shopped or were planning to shop elsewhere downtown. Two-thirds of the respondents also said the market was their main reason for coming downtown.

“It appears from our survey that the farmers’ market does increase the number of people who will shop downtown,” Gitelson said.

Analysis of parking found that 88 percent of respondents said they did not have a difficult time locating a space.

Discussions about moving the market, which has been at its current location since 1993, evolved out of concerns for the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists who dodge each other and vehicles at the lot’s entrance and exit nearest to Second Street. There also was concern that pedestrians endangered themselves when walking in the crosswalks along Second Street at Wall and Flume streets. However, the students found that since 2006 only two accidents have been reported to the Chico Police Department’s computer-aided dispatch.

Overall, according to the survey, the region is relatively safe.

Still, observations by the students, including seeing vehicles stop in the middle of the intersections, prompted them to make some suggestions. Simple ideas included using crossing guards or temporary stop signs or cones during the event. Installing pedestrian lights was one of the more costly options.

Farmer Pamela Posey said the safety features were very doable, and she noted that she and other vendors have committed to parking farther away from the market to free up spaces. Posey, an organic grower from Butte Creek, was one of 11 members of the public to speak on the issue in City Council Chambers.

Katrina Davis-Woodcox, executive director of the Downtown Chico Business Association, lamented somewhat the lack of communication between downtown businesses and the CCFM, pledging on behalf of her organization to fix that. For their part, several farmers appeared amenable to some sort of collaboration. And in fact, CCFM has committed to having a board member present at DCBA’s meetings.

Nickell, who throughout the process has voiced support for the market, wasn’t shy in sharing that his sentiments have not changed. Holcombe said the rancor the committee members have experienced over the past several months was for an idea that was well intentioned. While noting that the committee would not entirely rule out the idea to relocate the event, Walker voiced his support for its current site.

“To me, the solutions we need to look for … need to be in the context that the market stays where it is,” he said.