As the Saline Farmers Market is about to open for its 19th year, there’s some debate among city leaders about the market’s viability.
The market, founded in April 2000, is an official function of city government. Over the years, the market grew. In 2010, a summer weekday market was held at the Saline District Library. Also in 2010, the first winter market was held. The winter market moved to Liberty School in 2011.
But while demand for local, fresh produce is higher than ever, the Saline Farmers Market has been hit by competition. Pittsfield Township has a full-time market manager and budget for a Thursday market. Chelsea’s growing farmers market is partially funded by the 5 Healthy Towns Foundation. In addition, several private businesses, like McPherson Local, have scooped up vendors who once attended the Saline market.
Monday, Market Manager Christine Easley and her team appeared before Saline City Council with a request for additional funding. On its face, it seemed like a strange request for a market that had already decided to pull the plug on its Tuesday market. But the market staff is determined to put all its eggs in the same basket – the Saturday morning market.
Tuesday market attendance had begun falling off at the library. It slipped further last year when it moved to the Rentschler Farm Museum.
“We were not getting the customers in. The vendors started falling off. We surveyed our vendors and only two were willing to return to the Tuesday market,” Easley told city council at a budget session Monday. Easley was answering questions about the market’s viability posed by Councillor Janet Dillon.
So, after consulting with city staff and vendors, they made the decision to close the Tuesday market.
They’ve trained their focus on building on the success of the Saturday market in downtown Saline. Last year, the market counted 19,000 visitors.
“We offer nutrition, local foods, a connection with the people you buy from, and all the social benefits that come from going outside and seeing people at the market,” Easley said.
The market has traditional been a self-sustaining operation, with vendor fees paying for a part-time manager. This year, the market is asking council to nearly double its budget, from $18,170 to $34,127. Some of that will be offset by a $9,000 grant from the Washtenaw County Health Department. That money will pay for a program to have a chef at the market once a month, teaching people how to cook the food they buy.
The other $8,332 would come from the city’s economic development corporation. The biggest cost increase is in salaries, which would rise from $12,000 to $22,000. Easley said this would pay her and an assistant for about 20 hours of work each week. She said she and an assistant put in many volunteer hours last year.
The pitch drew some questions, some opposition and some support from the city council.
Councillor Dean Girbach was the least supportive. Girbach wondered if the market had expanded too far from its original intent – to provide a place for vendors to sell goods.
“My bigger concern is, should we be subsidizing the vendors who are coming in?” Girbach said, suggesting vendors should share revenue or pay a larger vendor fee. “I strongly believe this is not a viable solution for the city at this point. There must be other options, especially when you consider issues like parking, private enterprise, a structural deficit, and having less vendors than we’ve had before. We’re adding more hours (salary) for less days.”
Girbach suggested market operations might be better handled by McPherson Local and other organizations in town.
Girbach’s comments were not well received by Councillor Linda TerHaar.
“You make me want to screa,. I completely disagree,” said TerHaar, who regularly attends the Saturday market. “It’s still a very lively, vibrant and vital addition to downtown.”
TerHaar sees the request as the market focusing on best practices.
“I fully support going to the new focus and concentrating on the Saturday market,” TerHaar said.
Mayor Brian Marl said he saw merit in some of Girbach’s points, but sided with TerHaar.
“I share some of the concerns articulated by my colleagues. As for this request, I have no issue making additional contributions, but I do want to explore avenues that put the farmers market on a more sustainable trajectory,” Marl said.
He compared the market to another often-question city venture – The Saline Celtic Festival. Marl said the Celtic Festival has improved its financial picture by finding community sponsors. He said the festival generated $10,000 in sponsorships last year and hopes to raise $12,000 this year.
The Saline Farmers Market opens for the season Saturday. It’s held between 8 a.m. and noon in the parking lot visible from South Ann Arbor Street.