Jeff Clemetson | Editor
“We can’t have ‘The Civil War of the Village!’”
That was an exclamation from a clearly frustrated Councilmember Kristine Alessio during a discussion on the future of Friday farmers markets at the Nov. 27 La Mesa City Council meeting. “Civil war” may be a bit hyperbolic, but moving the farmers market to La Mesa Boulevard has clearly caused a rift between residents and a business association who both support the new location, and some long-time Village businesses that say they are losing customers because of it.
The city report
When the City Council voted to move the market into the Village back in March, it agreed to review its decision after six months of operating the market in the new location. The review was in response to initial opposition to the move — mostly from established restaurants worried about how lack of parking would affect business.
For its review, presented at the Nov. 27 meeting, the city prepared a staff report that looked at the farmers market’s performance; parking around the Village during the markets; sales tax revenue for the Village for the last six months; and surveys of businesses and residents about the market.
According to the report, the farmers market performed well in its new location. The number of market vendors doubled compared to its previous location in the Civic Center parking lot; total gross sales increased by 80 percent from May to September; and average weekly gross sales for non-farm vendors increased by 10 percent. The only downturn was a decrease of average weekly sales for farm vendors, down 20 percent.
“That is probably because they added more vendors. You have ‘x’ demand that is spread out among more vendors,” said city of La Mesa Community Development Department program coordinator Chris Gonzalez, who presented the report.
The report found that the market is self-supporting and making profit for La Mesa Village Business Association (LMVBA), the local business group charged with putting on special events in the Village, and Brian’s Farmers Markets, the company hired to produce the market.
Sales tax revenue in the Village increased 2.6 percent in the second quarter of the fiscal year compared to last year’s and was the “only area [in the city of La Mesa] to achieve a positive sales tax generation over the previous period,” Gonzalez said.
A parking study conducted on May 18 concluded that “definitely the market is bringing visitors to the Village,” Gonzalez said, because the non-permit parking spaces were being mostly used. The report showed that 30 parking spaces were still available during the market’s peak hours and there had been no complaints by residents with parking permits who were unable to find parking.
The results of the surveys, however, highlighted a divide between residents and newer businesses, which view the market favorably, and more established businesses — mostly restaurants — that want the market moved from Fridays or off La Mesa Boulevard entirely.
Overall, survey results show support for the Friday market in the Village at 73 percent. However, among dining businesses, 70 percent are opposed.
The report also found that 56.7 percent of businesses reported no change in income on Fridays since the market moved to the Village; 13.4 percent reported improved sales; and 32.8 percent reported declining sales. Among dining establishments, 25 percent reported no change; 12.5 percent reported improved sales; and 56.3 percent reported a decline in sales.
The report also included a survey of people visiting the Village during the market. That survey found that 65 percent of the visitors were La Mesans and the rest were mostly from neighboring cities; 72 percent of those surveyed said they were in the Village specifically for the farmers market; 81 percent of market visitors said they patronize businesses in the Village before, after or during the farmers market; 71 percent said they dine at a Village restaurant; 25.5 percent shop at a retail store; and very few frequent a professional or personal service during the market.
The survey also asked businesses for ideas to improve the market. The most popular suggestion, mostly from restaurants, was moving the market to a different location or holding it on another day. Other ideas included moving booths to face toward the businesses; changing or reducing the hours of the market; adding more vendors in general; closing La Mesa Boulevard from Spring Street to Palm Avenue; improving parking for employees; and adding more farm vendors and fewer hot food vendors.
For and against
The divide on how businesses and residents view the Friday market, evident in the city report, was on full display during the Nov. 27 meeting.
Peter Soutowood, who co-chairs the La Mesa Village Business Association (LMVBA), pointed to the survey results as reason to support keeping the market in the Village and on Fridays.
“Looking at the survey results, we have three-quarters of our constituency, whether or not they are members of the [LMVBA], look to be quite in favor of the market,” he said.
Soutowood, who is owner of the Fourpenny restaurant in the Village, added that he wanted to make sure that the voices of businesses other than restaurants “matter” in determining what to do about the market.
The LMVBA rejected the idea of moving the location or the day, Soutowood said, because it would “halt this event entirely – killing it, stopping it, probably taking a lengthy pause to regroup and find new vendors to restart the event in whatever form it takes.”
Soutowood suggested that the council vote to have the booths realigned during the market to set up back-to-back in order to face the businesses.
“What we’re doing is making 50 percent of the attention focused on those brick-and-mortar establishments that run along the street,” he said. “Without making that major change of changing the day or the [location], our proposal is to reverse the stalls, have them face out. We won’t have some the issues that I have heard from businesses that their businesses are blocked by the back of the tent or there is no visibility to the signage, no access to their storefront. We want to open that up.”
Soutowood also pointed to the revenue the market brings in for the LMVBA — revenue he said the association needs to continue putting on events like Holiday in the Village that do not pay for themselves and cost more than association fees bring in.
“I would have the council consider that unless it wants to get back into the event-planning business, … that there needs to be a source of income like the farmers market that can keep the Village Association afloat,” he said. “That is not an ultimatum, it’s just simply a fact of how we as an association need to operate. We require some revenue for events we put on and almost all of them cost quite a bit of money.”
Councilmember Alessio retorted that she found the claim that Holiday in the Village and other events needing revenue to continue “bizarre” because the events had been held in the past without needing funds from a farmers market.
Market operator Brian Beevers also made the case that moving the market to another day would essentially kill it because vendors are already booked on other days. He also opposed moving the market’s location, although he said if that is what the city decides, he would do his best to make it work. Beevers also opposed the idea of putting the booths back to back because markets lose something when they are not oriented like a grocery store.
Beevers, who in addition to managing farmers markets, also operates a brick-and-mortar store in North Park, offered suggestions for local businesses to take advantage of the “quadrupled” number of people who now attend the Friday markets by promoting their businesses with specials during the market or setting up a booth in the market itself.
Chris Conyers, operator of the new Surfrider Pizza Co., said he thinks the farmers markets bring in business and voiced his support for the LMVBA plan to re-orient the vendor booths.
“You bring [a farmers market] on a Friday night, right on the main street, it’s going to be busy whatever you put there,” he said. “So if we can all work together that would be nice.”
John Bedlion, owner of Johnny B’s Burgers Brew & Spirits, was one of the few speakers to oppose the market, although he said he had spoke with other restaurant owners in the Village who oppose the Friday market, including Centifonti’s Bar & Restaurant, BO-Beau Kitchen + Garden, and Tiramisu Trattoria.
“Since the market had opened, on Friday, my daytime business has dropped considerably,” Bedlion said, reporting that his sales have been down between $1,200 and $2,000 on Fridays. “We don’t need a farmers market on Friday, we’re busy anyway.”
Craig Maxwell, owner of Maxwell’s House of Books, also said the market has caused a downturn in business.
“We knew our businesses would suffer but no one guessed how much,” he said. “Friday afternoon went from my best day to my worst day.”
Additionally, a representative for Por Favor spoke against the farmers market, citing a loss of customers for lunch and dinner on Fridays.
At the meeting, La Mesa residents overwhelmingly were in favor of the Friday markets, with some saying they would be in the Village less if the market moves; others vowed to eat at restaurants more often during the market. Some even offered their own suggestions like reducing the number of vendors who sell prepared foods.
After public comments, it was the City Council’s turn to debate whether to renew the special permit for the Friday market, modify it or cancel it altogether.
“Something has got to be done … I really cannot put my stamp of approval on something that’s costing a 20-year business and a lot of other businesses $100,000 in loss,” said Councilmember Alessio, and suggested shutting down the market for three months in order to find a better location.
Councilmember Guy McWhirter pointed out that the city received 104 emails about the farmers market and only seven of them were opposed. He said the residents’ enthusiasm and the Village’s vibrancy is “evident” at the markets and threw his support behind the LMVBA idea of re-orienting the booths.
Vice Mayor Colin Parent also supported the market and cited the Village’s many successful events like Oktoberfest, summer car shows and Holiday in the Village as reasons for downtown La Mesa’s popularity.
“These are all things that take the street and return it for a broader use,” he said. “Those are things that have made us successful and we’re making us more successful today with this farmers market.”
Mayor Mark Arapostathis noted that moving the market to a new location could take anywhere between six months and two years, and suggested the city could start looking at Allison Avenue, Lemon Avenue or the west side of La Mesa Boulevard as possible future locations. However, he said he felt the city should keep the market where it is while the city arbitrates a consensus or compromise between both sides.
“Not everyone is going to be happy,” he said. “We don’t want the businesses to go out of business. We don’t want the residents to be without this. We’ve got to come to some consensus.”
Alessio motioned to give the market 90 days at its current time and location while the city arbitrates with “all options discussed,” including moving the market to a new day or location. Alessio’s motion also included a provision that would essentially end the market if no consensus was reached, but Parent pointed out that the provision would give those opposed to the market an unfair position to bargain from, since they could essentially kill the market after 90 days if they simply did not agree to anything. The provision was removed from the motion.
The final motion extended the permit for the Friday markets another six months with a staff report on the arbitration between the stakeholders where every option and possible solution is discussed and addressed within 90 days.
“Anyone who thinks, ‘I can dig in and hold my ground and not compromise in the next 90 days and win’ is making a terrible mistake,” said Councilmember Bill Baber, directing his comments at the two sides. “This is the time to work together and bring us a consensus. Because that’s how judges get settlements. They tell both sides they have a good chance of losing if you don’t go talk to the other side.”
After the discussion, the council voted unanimously to approve the motion. As the residents and Village business owners walked out of the council chamber, Councilmember Baber voiced a half-joking observation: “And everyone is unhappy.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.