With the announcement last week by the investment group, Momentum Midland, to withdraw their proposal to relocate the Farmers Market, the Executive Committee has asked me to discuss some of the issues that have plagued the Farmers Market for many years, but have grown exponentially in the last few years due to expansive growth and participation in the market.
While the current location has been a wonderful place for the Farmers Market to grow, we have simply outgrown the space. We are grateful that Alden Dow created such an interesting space for this community and know that wherever the Market ends up, we, as a community, will continue to care for the landmark. When customers tell us they love the Market and have a great shopping experience, that means we've done our job in covering up all the challenges we have on a regular basis. A couple of weeks ago we submitted a letter outlining some of the ongoing issues we have with the current area to the City Planning Department for consideration at the next Planning Commission Meeting. Here is a summary of that letter:
Stall Size Issues
When the market was taken over seven years ago by the current market manager, there were only about 60 regularly occupied stalls. The number of vendors has steadily increased and we have expanded the number of stalls to 89 with another five being flex spaces that we use in a pinch. Unfortunately, not all of the stalls have similar sizes due to the geography the market occupies. While we try to give everyone equal stall sizes, limitations such as posts, curbs, signs, and tables are consistently in the way. The interior stalls of the circle are pie-shaped, which cause issues as vendors have square tents. The result is some vendors get short-changed on the amount of space they have, and many cannot have vehicles on their stall site because they simply won't all fit. The fact that over half of the vendor stalls are not protected by a roof causes challenges for vendors and shoppers alike.
The aisle width is no longer sufficient to hold the number of shoppers that we have on a regular basis. With increased shopper traffic (which is a great thing) and limited aisle space, comes an increased risk of shopper accidents, and we have had many of them. We have had several patrons visit the emergency room as a result from a fall at the market. There are also constant issues with shopper congestion blocking vendor tables for extended periods of time. When you add in strollers, walkers, wheelchairs and amigos, more room is needed to ensure shoppers can safely maneuver through the market.
Even though the market is a circle, there are few entrances to access the circle proper due to vendor set up. This has caused several problems. It creates bottlenecks as customers attempt to squeeze between, or from behind vendor tables. Conversely, when those shoppers leave from between vendor vehicles, they cause a safety hazard as the oncoming traffic cannot see them until last minute. For a while we had vendors on the H Hotel side of the lawn, but had to discontinue this as it was a hazard to shoppers crossing into oncoming traffic. This has also resulted in vendor thefts as the backs of their tables are easily open to people walking on the outside of the circle.
Due to the high number of shoppers at market, we frequently have traffic backups both in the parking lots and around the circle, especially when folks turn to go the wrong way up Ashman Street. There have been times when shoppers will stop to load a vehicle around the circle, causing a traffic back up all the way up Ashman St. We had similar problems with semi-trucks and tour buses not being able to navigate the circle without causing traffic problems.
The middle portion of the circle having no roof has always been a problem. The vendors in those spots need to set up a tent not only for rain, but sun protection as well. When it rains, the water cascades off the roof, onto the vendor tent and causes a waterfall onto the shoppers. Even during sunny days, the condensation on the roof drips onto vendors and shoppers throughout market mornings.
As the market sits at the bottom of a hill, and part of the park system where people are regularly drawn to, it is an easy target for crime. Our market masters over the years have had to call the police for a number of reasons including intoxicated individuals, experienced market structure and bathroom vandalism, drug issues and other assorted problems. One of our staff has witnessed the police come down the hill and watched the troublemakers scatter over the Tridge. We have always made sure that the Market is a safe place and we will continue to do so. The police have done an excellent job trying to clean up the problems down there, but they cannot be everywhere at once.
A large market comes with a lot of items to store onsite (tables, chairs, signage, ladder, banners, buckets, safety cones, cleaning equipment, etc...). We are in need of more storage; however a solution to that, due to the flood plain, has been hard to come by. The closest option we could find to fit within the confines of the flood plain is costly, a hassle and impedes on parking. Parking is already tight so we really do not want to pursue that option.
Due to the way the market is wired, we consistently have power issues. Some vendors have freezers, warmers, heaters, cash registers and scales, and we regularly blow the breakers. Some vendors have only certain spaces they can set up because that outlet or light post is the only one that will let them draw enough power. The flood plain also has restrictions for upgrading the power and the solution is costly and awkward at best.
These are only a few of the main issues we have on a regular basis throughout Market season. We have had many people offer suggestions on how to fix some of these, but this structure being in a floodplain is the main obstacle that blocks reasonable solutions to almost all of them. We have discussed some of these with planners, engineers, farmers market experts, and architects. All came to the same conclusion: the only way to fix them, is to relocate.
Many questions have been asked about the types of vendors we allow at Market. Yes, we have restrictions and have rejected many, many vendors over the years. Diversifying the Market has helped boost all vendor sales, including our traditional farmers. If you want to read our specific vendor breakdown by product and county, please visit the Chamber blog.
In light of this proposal being pulled, we are at a serious crossroads. We still have many challenges to address going forward. Yes, downsizing the Market is an option that could address a couple issues, but our customers enjoy the many vendor options we now offer. And, downsizing means cutting business. Each of these vendors are small businesses in their own right and it could be devastating to them to lose the option to vend at Market. When we make decisions about the Market we don't do it lightly and realize Market decisions impact upwards of 90 small businesses, families and livelihoods. Not to mention all the people that come from as far away as Lake Orion, St. Clair, Port Huron and Ann Arbor to come to our Market. When these people come, they visit our stores, restaurants, attractions and help Midland grow in many other ways than just sustaining such a large Market.
The loss of this proposal has put us squarely between a rock and hard place. As the Market managers, we will continue this discussion about how to go forward and continue looking for future growth options as we have for the past couple of years. The Market is still a good thing for this community and we will continue to make sure the Market is an asset to Midland. Just know that behind-the-scenes, there are still serious challenges impeding the everyday function of the Market. This was a missed opportunity to take the Market to the next level, to a level that not only addressed many of our issues, but would make the Market grow and be a more enjoyable experience for all involved.