Market Blues 

New farmers' markets are flourishing. Meanwhile, internal politics bog down the city's franchise on 17th Street.

click to enlarge news36_farmers_market_200.jpg

Forgive Rosa Fleming if she isn't interested in the woman's offer. After 50 years of selling produce at the 17th Street Farmers' Market, Fleming isn't moving her stand to the South of the James Market in Forest Hill Park. Even with its bustling Saturday morning business, even considering that last week, after a Thursday downpour, her stand is one of just three vendors hustling vegetables in a barren Shockoe Bottom.

“You got to cross the river, honey,” says a young woman, wearing a black cocktail dress and heels, flashing her big, green eyes.

“I'm going to check into it,” Fleming says, promising to swing down there one day, see what all the fuss is about. Satisfied, the young woman — who happens to be Karen Atkinson, the spunky manager of South of the James — bounds off.

Fleming gets back to helping a customer. 

“I'm not going anywhere,” Fleming says. “I don't plan on leaving until God move me. I love the Bottom.”

Fleming and her sister, Evelyn Allen, have stood pat as many of their fellow produce vendors have given up on the Bottom, moving their businesses to one of a half dozen or so local farmers' markets that have opened in the last two years.

It's a bizarre conundrum. Amid a veritable food revolution that's brought outdoor markets into vogue, the city's oldest and most historic market at 17th Street, which predates the city itself, founders.

It's a different picture elsewhere. Atkinson's market in Forest Hill Park typically draws more than 1,200 people on Saturdays — vendors sell out by 10 most mornings — and other markets such as the Byrd House Market in Oregon Hill and the Lakeside Farmers' Market in Henrico have opened to similar success.

“The vendors have become disillusioned [with 17th Street]. There are so many other places they can go,” says Mary Bliley, an advocate for 17th Street and co-founder of Friends of the Market. “We don't want to lose it from an historic standpoint. It should be a viable running market in today's green market.”

Bliley and other advocates cite a litany of problems — the perceived lack of parking, inconvenient hours of operation and lack of stable management among them. But the biggest issue appears to that the market is, well, run by the city.

Once the province of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, that agency divested itself years ago, handing the reins to another city agency, the Department of Economic Development. It's seen peaks and valleys of progress from various events and festivals that became annual mainstays.

In the late 1990s, local entrepreneur Kathy Emerson took over as the market's manager, and for six years it experienced a renaissance of sorts. Under Emerson, the Tomato Express lunchtime bus shuttled office workers for convenient grocery trips.

Emerson, however, often clashed with the city over funding and the market's direction. She left the post in 2004, and the market's management has been unstable ever since. With the change in city administration in 2005 — and a loss first of market management and then of the market's focus — the events began to struggle. The Tomato Express, always a heavily subsidized convenience, was cut. Ironically, it was just as these shifts began to occur that the much ballyhooed national trend toward local fresh market shopping began to take off.

The increase in the public's interest in buying local hit a high point last summer — driven by rising fuel costs that have driven up food prices at grocery chains, a burgeoning buy-local movement goaded by global warning and a series of health scares involving produce from large farms. 

Stacey Moulds, who briefly served as manager of 17th Street and was forced to resign in October 2006, says the timing was right for the Byrd House Market, which she co-founded and opened in the spring of 2007 in Oregon Hill. But it was also right, she says, for 17th Street to jump on the bandwagon as a leader in what should have been a citywide — even region-wide — farmers' market franchise.

“At the time, when we started Byrd House Market, the acting director of economic development [Cary Brown] was open to partnering,” Moulds says. “And we wanted to partner with 17th Street, which is why we didn't do ours on Saturday.”

Byrd House's initial grant proposal for funding from the Kellogg Foundation included an endorsement from 17th Street's acting market manager, Adam Nathanson. That proposal eventually envisioned a hub-and-spoke system of markets citywide, with 17th Street as the hub.

“We had thought, you know, wouldn't it be great to have these smaller, more local markets with [17th] Street as a hub,” Moulds says. “Adam was really supportive, but economic development wasn't necessarily.”

It was around this time that acting economic development director Brown was finding out who his permanent boss was going to be, and Moulds says she suspects that the department was in no place to set long-range policy plans for 17th Street.

That the Shockoe Bottom market has been in flux would be an understatement. Rumors have circulated for years that local developers have expressed interest in taking control of the market, enclosing it, even mixing in condos. The market has been without a manager for about a year, and those rumors have continued to flummox advocates.

Earlier this summer, Carthan Currin, the director of economic development for the city, had lunch with Friends of the Market co-founders Bliley and Moonie Etherington, informing them of them of the market's status. How Bliley, Etherington and Currin recount that meeting, however, says much about the market's instability.

Bliley says Currin told them that the reason the city hadn't hired a new market manager — the job's been vacant for nearly a year — had to do with the city exploring “opportunities to spin it off” — perhaps to a nonprofit — or partnering with a private company to manage it.

Currin says that's not the case.

“My main focus is to get a new market manager, period,” Currin said in an interview more than a month ago. When asked if the city was exploring spinning off the market, Currin snapped back: “I can't talk about that with you. There is no move afoot to do anything but to hire a manager for the friggin' market.”

A phone call to Currin's office, inquiring about the status of the search, wasn't returned. Sources say the city is in the final stages of interviewing and selecting a manager.

City politics have been one of the market's trademarks. Moulds says she was forced to quit because the city undercut her authority — for example, she wasn't allowed to place newspaper ads for market events. Nathanson also found himself running afoul of city administrative politics.

Eventually he was passed over for the permanent post by a Wilder appointee, Avis Binford, who was subsequently removed last fall.

With politics buzzing in the background, 17th Street has continued to slowly degrade. Vendors remain, but many of the long-faithful have packed up to head for the local markets such as Atkinson's South of the James Market.

Mike Wiblin, a Hanover farmer, recently began pitching an awninglike tent contraption he's built on his red pickup truck at the Lakeside and South of the James markets. At mention of 17th Street he throws his hands up in frustration. “I don't go down there anymore,” he says, as much a practical businessman as he is a devoted adherent to local farming: No customers and no city support, he says, means no profit for him.

It's not just the vendors. City Councilwoman Kathy Graziano may well be the most devoted farmers' market adherent among the city's elected leadership. She vocally pushes the issue of promoting and improving 17th Street, but lately she's found another outlet for her energy.

The South of the James Market is Graziano's brainchild, largely paid for through her discretionary City Council fund. But it's something she hoped her office could do in partnership with economic development, says David Hathcock, Graziano's council legislative aide.

“We have been communicating with the Department of Economic Development for the last three years about our desire to see a satellite of the 17th Street Market located somewhere in the 4th District,” Hathcock says. “While the department had been supportive, we'd made no progress. So this year we tried another approach, which was to find a space on our own, to find the manager on our own and to find the financing on our own.”

South of the James has proven a huge success. Using a formula also employed on a smaller scale at Byrd House, the market doesn't just sell groceries — it sells an experience. Jugglers and balloon artists entertain kids. A guitarist growls the blues. Among the 50 or so regular vendors there, jewelry and handicraft makers sell goods next to local farmers.

Atkinson, the market manager Graziano recruited, has big dreams. She's also counting on 17th Street to step up to the plate.

She's already thinking expansion and recently, she clinched a deal with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation to start a regular market next year at Bryan Park to mimic South of the James. Atkinson has created her own management organization: The Market Umbrella aims to provide a unifying voice for as many markets as choose to participate. She has a marketing budget and plans to use her voice to promote the broader buy-local message.

Atkinson, along with Graziano, recently met with the Economic Development Department in a last-ditch effort to provide assistance with the vision for the place. But, she says, “I have heard nothing.” S



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