Business at the Saline Farmers’ Market has been decreasing over the last few years. Market director Nancy Crisp said that it has dropped over five percent per year.
This trend has raised concerns and some controversial solutions have been suggested. One possibility, promoted by Matt Zahn, is to move the market to city property on Bennett Street and build a permanent structure to house it.
The future of the market was the topic of a Saline City Council work meeting this week. Crisp and Zahn were present to express their views and to answer questions from council members. The level of community interest caught Council by surprise as the meeting ran twenty minutes late.
Zahn told about the project that he undertook last fall to explore the possibility of building a four-season market complex somewhere in Saline. For his research, he contacted Saline city leaders, downtown business owners, managers of various other farmers’ markets in the area and the Michigan Farmers’ Market Association.
The Bennett Street property is adjacent to the Depot Museum and the Wayne Clements Memorial Depot Trail. It is also across the street from Henne Field and just three blocks from downtown.
Currently the Saline Farmers’ Market is held in three locations, at South Ann Arbor Street on Saturday mornings, at the library on Tuesday afternoons in the summer and at Liberty School in winter. Zahn’s plan would consolidate all of these at the new location.
Zahn created a focus group to provide opinions on the project. Based on their responses, he sent a memo to City Council on February 27, declaring his proposal dead.
Nevertheless, the discussion continues.
From the research he conducted, Zahn drew up a list of 22 suggestions for the market going forward. The one he considered most important was to set up an advisory board of citizens, city officials and stake holders to assist Manager Crisp in her administration.
“It’s the community’s market,” Zahn said. “If we want to have the best market, everybody needs to help shape it.”
One alternative to Zahn’s proposal would be to build a permanent structure at the current location, a downtown parking lot. Others reject the idea of any permanent structure.
Councilwoman Linda TerHaar thought Zahn’s declaring the proposal dead might be premature. She also sought opinions of citizens and merchants.
“I found that the responses were quite a bit more nuanced than simply ‘for’ and ‘against’”, TerHaar said.
Among other council members, opinions were mixed. Jack Ceo likes the Bennett Street plan and opposes building a structure at the downtown market location, but says he understands opposing views. He is concerned about loss of parking spaces.
Janet Dillon and Heidi McClelland like the idea of a permanent structure but they are not sure if Bennett Street is the best place. Dean Girbach raised the importance of spending priorities; buildings are expensive.
Crisp spoke about her 16-year tenure as market manager. She said that her priority has always been to develop strong relationships with the vendors and try to meet their needs.
Crisp also said that she has maintained a balanced budget by reducing spending to that which is taken in through booth rental fees. This means that when business declines, reducing revenues, she has to cut back on advertising. Councilman Rhoads found this troubling.
“In business, if your income is down you are encouraged to do more advertising to bring more people in,” Rhoads said. “And so maybe we need to decide are we going to periodically subsidize the market to some extent.”
Dillon quizzed Crisp about numbers, looking for a more data-driven decision. TerHaar pointed out that decisions about the market are much broader than whether or not to build a building. Additional factors, like advertising, are important and an advisory group would help.
“One person can’t think of everything,” TerHaar said. “So I really encourage us to think about having some sort of a group, however you define it, that would generate other ideas about how to make the farmers’ market even better.”
The allotted meeting time ran out before community comments were heard. These went on for another twenty minutes as six individuals stood to declare their thoughts.
Produce vendor Deb Marks spoke of her love of the Saline Farmer’s market and appreciation for the market manager, Crisp. She said she likes the idea of a structure, but would like to have the market stay downtown because people come both to shop the market and to visit area businesses.
Dave Jebb, proprietor of Dave’s Honey, gave a detailed list of reasons why the Saline Farmers’ Market is a valuable asset to the community. He said he supported Zahn’s proposal.
Jim Peters said he liked the idea of a permanent structure, but if it’s built by the Depot Museum, it should display late nineteenth century architecture.
Mary Hess reminded the council that this project, as well as other proposals that have been made recently, cost money. If a market building will require taxpayer’s money, then people should just be resigned to bringing an umbrella to the market.
Deva Jebb-Albaba said that for her and her two children the Saline market is “just not a lot of fun.” She likes the idea of building structure on Bennett Street and thinks that interesting historical artefacts are likely to be found if the project is undertaken. Jebb-Albaba is an archeologist.
Megan Phillips Goldenberg of New Growth Associates, a food systems consulting firm, offered her expertise in decisions about the market. She also expressed her opinion about the Zahn plan.
“Any time a farmers’ market is moved from the downtown area, both downtown businesses and the farmers’ market suffer in ways that they don’t recover from,” Goldenberg said.
Mayor Brian Marl will add the Farmers Market as a discussion item to the agenda for the regular Council meeting on June 6, starting at 7:30 p.m.