By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
La Mesa’s Friday farmers markets could soon be coming to an end.
At its March 26 meeting, the La Mesa City Council voted to seek out offers for a farmers market held on a different day, in a different location or held differently to appease businesses that claim the market has cost them money since it moved to La Mesa Boulevard one year ago. The council gave the current market until the end of July to run as is, and unless the council grants another extension or agrees on a new market proposal, the city’s farmers market — the longest running in the region — will essentially be closed down until a new one emerges.
How it came to this
When the Friday farmers market moved to the Village in May of 2018, it became under the control of La Mesa Village Association (LMVA) — a group of business owners that advocate for its members and market the Village through public events like the car shows, Oktoberfest, and Holidays in the Village.
“When we started the La Mesa Village Association, one of our main goals was to move the farmers market up to the Village, because that’s what the community wanted and that’s what the businesses wanted,” LMVA co-chair Theresa Favro said.
To get the market moved from its previous location in the Civic Center parking lot, LMVA filed a request for proposal (RFP) from the city, which was approved by the City Council under the caveat that the permit to operate the market would be reviewed after six months. At the six-month review, city staff reported on the market’s progress. That staff report showed a market that was far more successful than the one at the Civic Center in terms of vendors; that parking wasn’t as much of an issue as anticipated; and that it was very popular with La Mesa residents and people visiting the Village. The report also showed a clear divide among businesses in the Village, with some reporting net losses of revenue and others reporting net gains during the market.
To address the divide, the City Council renewed the permit for another six months but tasked city staff with looking at different options for the market, including moving the day or the location as well as tweaks to the setup that might benefit brick-and-mortar businesses affected by the market. Staff was also to facilitate arbitration between the LMVA and the businesses opposed to the market to come up with compromises.
At the March 26 City Council meeting, City Manager Yvonne Garrett presented staff-recommended options for changes to the farmers market based on meetings with businesses, the community and the LMVA.
Option one was to keep the farmers market on La Mesa Boulevard on Fridays with certain conditions. Staff had seven suggested recommendations and LMVA agreed to the first five:
Move street-closure time from 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. to allow more lunch business in the Village.
Create short-term passenger drop-off zones on Allison Avenue, Fourth Street and Palm Avenue for ease of access to service businesses and restaurants.
Request LMVA use funds from market to promote the Village outside of La Mesa. LMVA committed to put $1,000 a month toward marketing through social media, print and signs.
Remove banners from back of vendor booths for more visibility of brick and mortars.
Invert the booths so market visitors would stroll between booths and brick-and-mortar businesses. This recommendation proved impossible, however.
“What we discovered was, the feasibility of inversion presented a challenge due to the required width of the drive aisles in the middle of the market footprint,” Garret said.
The short time to load in means that the booths couldn’t be back to back because vehicles would need to pass the ones that are loading in. And if the booths were facing the businesses but pushed against the sidewalks, that would create a safety hazard and also be “problematic for the brick-and-mortar establishments.” The city determined inversion was “not in the best interest of vendors, businesses or customers,” Garrett said.
Reduce the number of hot-food vendors. The market currently has six that don’t offer the same food as eateries on the boulevard. “But the perception is they are competitive with restaurants,” Garrett said.
Resume shuttle service and require vendors to park at the Civic Center. LMVA supported the parking move but offering shuttle service was cost-prohibitive without sponsorship.
Staff’s second option was to move the market’s location. Staff looked at four locations and determined that Lemon, Palm and Allison avenues are not large enough for the current size of the market and a move to either of those streets would also not solve parking issues. Staff determined that returning the market to the Civic Center location would provide the most parking and be the least impactful on businesses. However, the LMVA would no longer sponsor the market if it returned there and the city would need to resume sponsorship and contract a manager. A fourth location became available when Grossmont Center offered to host the market in their parking lot, but during discussion, the City Council agreed that location would likely not bring the same number of visitors or vendors as the current market.
City staff also explored moving the market to another day of week, but did not recommend it because it would likely cause the market to fail due to a lack of vendors who are already committed to other markets on other days of the week.
Boon or bust?
Before the council voted on the staff recommendations, businesses both for and against the Friday market stated their cases to either keep or reject the LMVA’s permit to operate it.
“Most of the big restaurants and several of the retailers like myself are still suffering greatly. The farmers market has been very bad for us,” said Maxwell’s House of Books owner Craig Maxwell. “We really do believe that no solution that amounts to anything less than moving the event or changing the day will be sufficient.”
Por Favor Mexican Restaurant owner Lupe Marrujo described the market as “destructive” to her business because she no longer gets reservations for Friday dinners. “And the farmers market is not bringing enough people to replace what I have lost. It hurts,” she added.
A downturn in Friday business is not universal in the Village, however, and other store and restaurant owners report the opposite — that the market has been a boon for them.
“Now we have something that is a gift, in my opinion. We have this huge exposure that goes on,” said Brenda Leek, a partner in Curbside Eatery. “Curbside is thriving on Fridays, lunch and dinner. We can’t take a reservation because we’re full.”
Fourpenny House owner Peter Soutowood said the farmers market was damaging to his lunchtime business, but he adapted and capitalized on what the market offered by getting a booth in the market to sell breads and improve his restaurant’s visibility.
“In the few hours that we have from market time until close, we make more money on Friday than we do on Saturday opening at 11 a.m. or Sunday opening at 9 a.m.,” he said.
“As a business owner, it has been very interesting to me to see the farmers market both in terms as what it has done for our visibility and taking a challenge, which was the loss of lunch time. Numbers wise, there are a lot of things that affect our business and in aggregate, the market has been fantastic for us.”
Soutowood also spoke on behalf of the LMVA’s members.
“We at LMVA are fully in support of the farmers market where it is,” he said. “We understand that it’s a good thing for the Village, which is why we are listening to our members and trying to advocate for them.”
In an interview after the council meeting, Favro, who owns retail shop Amethyst Moon, reported that her Friday business is up threefold and other retailers on La Mesa Boulevard like Act II are also experiencing a windfall during the market.
A difficult vote
After hearing comments, the City Council debated the staff recommendations.
Councilmember Kristine Alessio entered a motion to end the market and put out an RFP to “find an entity or group that will make it better” and move the market to another day or location.
Councilmember Bill Baber seconded the motion, and said he was disappointed that no compromises were agreed on between the LMVA and the other businesses. Specifically, Baber cited the LMVA board’s decision to reject the city staff’s recommendation to eliminate or reduce hot-food vendors, describing it as a “Waterloo moment.”
Soutowood said the board unanimously voted down the recommendation, even though a lot of the members present were restaurant owners.
“All of them said they wanted to exclude that,” he said. “Part of that was the principle of throttling back of any businesses being able to come in and have a go of it. Part of it was the complete difference in products — walking-around food versus sitting down to dine.”
Councilmember Dr. Akilah Weber expressed concern over the lack of compromise between the businesses.
“I haven’t seen any change,” she said. “The market as it is today is pretty much the same as it was six months ago, three months ago. The same discussion has been going on. So people have to give and take.”
Councilmember Colin Parent offered up an alternative motion to keep the market where and when it is but impose some of the staff recommendations as a requisite of the permit. Mayor Mark Arapostathis seconded the motion but added that all the recommendations should be required, including the shuttle service and eliminating all hot-food vendors from the market. The substitute motion failed to gain support of the other three council members and was rejected in a 2–3 vote.
Before the vote on Alessio’s motion, it was amended to allow for RFPs to include the current time and location and to extend the current market through July after Parent pointed out that without some extension, the market would close at the end of April. He also predicted that a new RFP process would do little to change the division over the farmers market.
“I think best case scenario, the Village Association makes an alternative application and it’s going to look a lot like the current application, maybe with some of the concessions we discussed in the substitute motion, and no one else is going to apply to do this event,” Parent said. “That’s what I think is going to happen. And I think if they do that — by the way, I hope that they do — I think it’s not going to solve peace in the Village.”
If that happens, Parent added, the council should prepare themselves for an even more difficult vote between upsetting some business owners against the market or upsetting other business owners and a majority of residents who support the market.
The council then voted unanimously on Alessio’s amended motion.
After the vote, Soutowood said the LMVA board would likely redo its RFP and propose a market with some of the recommendations on Fridays in the Village.
“There’s no market if you switch days and times,” he said, adding that without the income generated by the market, LMVA would stop existing and the city or another organization would have to step in to hold Oktoberfest, the car shows, Holidays in the Village and any other event.
“We want to try and continue to put on events in the Village — that’s what we’re in the business of doing. Every event is going to have effects on the public, it’s going to have effects on parking, it’s going to have effects on local businesses,” he said, but added that the famers market has become a “straw man” for shortcomings of businesses in the Village.
“I could use it as a straw man myself and say I didn’t have a good Friday because of the farmers market, but to correlate any ebbs and flows of a business with an event that happens just on Fridays is just about impossible,” he said. “And if the market went away completely, would we see those businesses that have been struggling all of a sudden spring up like phoenixes and do amazing business? I highly doubt it.”
Favro questioned the rationale behind the vote.
“How are we getting this taken away from us when it’s this successful? It just baffles me,”
she said, and pointed to city staff’s own reports of the success of the market.
“They’ve done surveys, they surveyed all the businesses, they’ve done a PowerPoint presentation,” she said. “They even refunded our money back that we put in for cost recovery. They refunded it back because all their data on the parking meters said it didn’t affect the parking so out of $4,500 we gave them in the beginning, they gave us $3,800 back.”
Favro also said that the LMVA would cease to exist and that business owners like herself would stop volunteering at events.
“At this point, it shouldn’t be this hard to put on free events for the community — it should be easy,” she said. “I don’t understand why it has to be this way. It should be, ‘Thanks you guys for volunteering. Thanks for putting up your own personal money. Thanks for taking time away from your family and your business.’”
In the Friday markets since the March 26 vote, Favro has begun a signature-gathering campaign to show support for keeping the Friday market going in the Village. So far, she has collected over 1,000 signatures.
Daniel Pitard is a La Mesa resident who signed to support the market. He and his daughter attend every Friday, he said, but never went to the Civic Center location. He described the council vote as “brutal” and has gotten active in trying to keep the market where it is.
“I’ve written letters to City Council. I’ve emailed people. I’ve talked to the mayor when he was down here for the event,” he said. “It’s not fair that they are making it hard for all of us. We want to have this great place to be.”
Pitard also pointed out that every business that supports the market is packed during market hours and only the ones that are against it are struggling, a point that Favro thinks is fueled by discussions about the market on social media.
“I’m hearing talk about boycotting people’s businesses,” she said. “Please don’t boycott any businesses. If people have a legitimate reason to be against the market, they have every right to voice their opinion. Don’t voice that you want everybody to boycott them, they work as hard as everybody else.”
Brian Beevers, market manager for the Friday markets, was also surprised that the City Council did not vote to renew the permit. He said the market has shown incredible success in terms of numbers in the one year that it has operated in the Village.
“La Mesa is now a sought-after market. There’s people coming from all over to shop here and there are vendors who can’t wait to get into this market,” he said. “A lot of communities would love to have what La Mesa has right now.”
Beevers said that moving the market to another day like Wednesday could still succeed but in a much “less impactful way” because there would be a lot less vendors and a lot less people.
Beevers also said that very few brick-and-mortar businesses have taken advantage of ways to utilize the market that he offers like setting up a booth or signing up for his text campaign that goes out to thousands of other businesses. He doesn’t think the market is the reason why some businesses struggle.
“The City Council needs to evaluate why certain things are being blamed on the market,” he said. “For example, the market has exponentially more people on Friday than there would be otherwise. And we know that a good percentage of people are coming from out of town. If I were a business, I’d be like there’s no other time I could be able to tap into brand-new business than right here right now at this market.
“If the market goes, all those people go,” he continued. “They don’t come anymore, so that is a lost opportunity for every business on this street.”
Beevers said he will continue to work to make the market grow to the benefit of all the businesses in the Village.
“I’d be sad to lose something I put my heart and soul into,” he said.
By the end of April, the city will issue its farmers market RFP through the purchasing portal called PlanetBids.
It is unclear how many bids the city will get, besides the LMVA. Grossmont Center may bid to move the market to its parking lot. The La Mesa Chamber of Commerce has said it will look at the RFP to see if it is worth pursuing, but added that there is no definite plan to take over the market. Other market managers may bid to start a new market.
According to the City Clerk’s office, interested market managers or organizations should register on PlanetBids to be automatically notified when the RFP is published. All questions about the RFP should be asked through the portal so potential respondents can see both the question and the city’s response.
Submittals in response to the RFP will only be accepted in digital format through the PlanetBids portal. Questions about the process can be answered by La Mesa Purchasing Officer Scott Munzenmaier at 619-667-1113 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.