City seeks input for meeting Farmer’s Market growth needs
The city of Stevens Point is currently seeking community input on how to go about meeting expansion needs for both farm vendor and non-farm vendor spots in the Mathias Mitchell Public Square in downtown Stevens Point.
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said he received some requests for non-farm vendor spots from various potential vendors. Also, he said there are more farm vendor applicants than there are spaces, so he thought it prudent to start a community discussion about possibly expanding the farmer’s market’s role on the public square.
“The city has been getting requests from non-farm vendors to be able to sell, and we have a limited number of spots. So, it seemed logical that we start looking at adding more spots,” Wiza said.
“When they were looking at setting up the farm portion of this year’s farmer’s market, (the Farmer’s Market Association) sent out an email … saying they have 50 farm applicants looking to sell on the public square and that they only had 40 spots. It appeared to me then that the farm vendors could also use some additional space,” Wiza said.
“So, I had engineering draw up a map taking into consideration all of the spots that council had already designated as vendor spots, both farm and non-farm. And then identify all the other spots that could be utilized for additional vendor spots. Not that they would, but they could. I wanted to know everything. Then I started getting feedback on those,” Wiza said.
“I started tossing around the idea to various people. I talked to Farmshed to see if they were interested in taking some more of the management duties for the non-farm vendors, I met with the Association of Downtown Businesses – at least two of those businesses also sell as non-farm vendors, Lemongrass Noodle House and Coffee Studio, selling coffee and pastries,” Wiza said.
Then, Wiza presented the idea to the Farmers Market Association during its April 2 meeting to discuss options to address the issues.
“It was kind of clear to me before I left that most of the farm vendors were content without extra competition and did not want to expand the farm portion of the public market,” Wiza said. “I’m OK with that. We’ll designate vendor spots and if you want to use them, great. If you don’t want to use them, I understand if they don’t want to expand.”
Rapid expansion would upset the balance of the farmers market, said Dan Mielke, Farmer’s Market Association board member.
“It will make the farmers market unsustainable. It will upset the balance of supply and demand for the farmers and we are not able to sell all we grow as it is,” he said.
Mielke said adding more vendor spots would essentially flood the downtown market and just because there are requests for more, doesn’t mean opening up the area wide to more competition is the best course of action.
“If there’s 10 waiting for a spot and you add 10, you’ll get 100 more waiting in line after that,” he said.
Mielke said he and the other Farmer’s Market Association members have worked very hard for decades to find a healthy balance in the supply and demand chain on the public square and it’s a delicate situation.
Although it’s a labor of love and in most cases a way of life for them, the vendors take their locations and product distribution very seriously, he said.
Saturday restaurants aren’t open, so opening up the downtown for more food vendors will only syphon business from other businesses.
“(Expanding the market’s vendor count) could also severely hurt many downtown businesses. Because this proposed change will be creating a lot of non-farm vendors that will drastically cut into their own sales to the customers to the market,” Mielke said. “These non-farm vendors will be in direct competition to the food businesses that already exist downtown, as well as many of the other retail stores.”
But even if they don’t compete with the downtown businesses, opening up the market for a flood of new vendors would upset an already delicate alliance between the farmers, he said. Vendor stall seniorities are taken seriously and a sudden influx of new vendors could prove difficult to organize.
“We are a very tight-knit community of farmers, and we all look out for each other. We need to know we can trust each other,” he said.
All that aside, Mielke said he just doesn’t see the need for more non-farmer vendors.
“It’s not like we have a demand we can’t supply, nobody is going hungry. So why mess with our downtown market economy?” Mielke said.
Mielke said perhaps a better use of resources and vendor space would be to open the market up for Sunday hours as well. The farmer’s market is technically open seven days a week, but in recent years Sundays have slipped in vendor turnout. So, building up Sundays with the space resources they have now might be a good first step.
Wiza said putting a vendor of similar type in front of a business would be a mistake and the city has no intention of allowing something like that to happen.
“We need to consider this. We don’t want food vendors to come in on a Saturday and compete with someone who’s been down there 365 days out the year paying taxes,” Wiza said. “Let’s use this as an example, I wouldn’t allow a food vendor who sells sub sandwiches next to Erbert’s and Gerbert’s.”
As the system is currently set up, the day-to-day operations for the farm vendors are managed by the Farmer’s Market Association and the non-farm vendors, of which there are about eight, are administered directly by the city.
When the farmer’s market expanded after the renovation of the public square in 2012, a lot of vendor stalls were added and the city decided it didn’t want to handle the day-to-day operations – such as vendor placement and rotation – as it was time and resource consuming, Wiza said.
“The council laid out some guidelines, some rules and ordinances, regarding the public square. Those included some designated vendor spots, along with some other guidelines about hours of operation and parking restriction and so-forth,” Wiza said. “But the important thing to remember is that the (Stevens Point) Common Council designated the vendor spots. We printed out a map, put 10 by 10 spots on it and said, ‘these are vendor spots.’”
At the time, the vendor spots were for only farm-vendors. The council then instructed the creation of the Farmer’s Market Association to set the internal policies such as assigning vendor stalls, setting the hours of operation and creating rules about what could be sold as produce through the creation of the Farmer’s Market Bylaws.
“The Council accepted those bylaws from the Farmer’s Market Association. Since then, we’ve added some non-farm vendors. We’ve had some interest in non-farm vendors selling downtown, like the French baker place. Most recently the egg rolls and stuffed chicken wings (from Lemongrass Noodle house, a downtown business),” said Wiza. “We realized there was a demand for non-farm products and it would enhance the public square. So, we expanded. I think there’s seven or eight non-farm vendor spots now. Of which, since then, one of those is Farmshed.”
“The non-farm vendors are handled by the city, and I’d like to move it somewhere else. Farmshed has agreed to at least consider it,” Wiza said.
“Farmshed is a partner with the farmer’s market and the city, we provide a service every week doing the electronic benefit transfer program,” said Layne Cozzolino, executive director of Farmshed. “That allows people who have food share benefits to swipe their card at our tent in the market and we exchange them tokens they can use with the vendors. Then at the end of the month, we walk around and collect the tokens and send them their payments,” she said.
Since 2007, Farmshed has organized various events on the square during farmer’s market hours, such as the Chef on the Square to help drum up traffic through the square.
“We are a non-farm vendor in the eyes of the city of Stevens Point, so we are not a part of the Farmer’s Market association,” Cozzolino said.
Mielke said he and other farmer’s market board members would like to see Farmshed representatives be a part of the Farmer’s Market Association in an official capacity, but ultimately that’s up to the city whether or not to allow it.
“Our organization’s purpose, our mission, is to connect people with local food. It’s inherent to what we do. It’s why we exist,” Cozzolino said. “So, we are ready to be at the table when it’s something concerning our mission.”
Cozzolino said she was a little surprised when she heard about the idea during a Downtown Business Association meeting March 23 she happened to be at, given the Farmshed’s steady involvement in the farmer’s market.
Cozzolino then set up a meeting with Wiza to discuss Farmshed’s involvement and the sustainability of the farmer’s market.
“We also discussed how to bring this idea forth to the community. I like (Wiza’s) approach, that he was going to each stakeholder group (to get feedback). I don’t know that the flow of which stakeholder groups he started or ended with was best – and it’s not ended, of course. There is going to be a lot more conversation about this,” she said. “The steps along the way maybe could have been done differently, but what he was getting at to get the perspective of the different people involved is the way a community entity like this should be approached.
“A farmer’s market is a place where community members come to support local farmers and to gather on Saturday morning, so I think it’s in the best interest to gather multi-stakeholder advice,” she said.
Cozzolino said she understands the knee-jerk reaction of the Farmer’s Market Association to take an immediate defensive position after having been pushed around by the city in the past.
“I know, also, that the farmer’s market (people) have had experiences in the past with other administrations where things have been pushed in a certain direction without much community input. So, historically, that’s something that still looms on the Association’s effort to look clearly on an idea or to feel like it’s just something that’s going to be pushed down our throats,” Cozzolino said.
“You know, I’ve thought about it as a personal customer of the market and in my role here at Farmshed, ‘oh, it’d be really neat if there was other things’ and I didn’t even think of it as an expansion, to be honest. I just felt like it would be neat to have food contests every once in a while on the sidewalks outside of the square to draw people down,” Cozzolino said. “As a partner, we’re always trying to think of new ways to generate interest in the market. So, while I hadn’t thought about an expansion, I have thought about how the outside of the market could be used as a tool to making more things happen down there.”
Cozzolino said Farmshed is more interested in working with the city to set criteria for what constitutes as a non-farm vendor and what the specifics of that role should be.
“Having a little bit better structure around the non-farm vendor would be really nice, but I feel like that would be something really easy to do,” she said. “Is expansion necessary? I don’t know. The market is a thriving place right now. But I’m also not against it. I like ideas and I like working through ideas to see if there is reason to explore further.
“So, when you ask me if it’s necessary, I don’t know yet. But that’s why the beginning conversations are being had. And I hope (the conversations) do happen,” she said.
Wiza said at this point all he is looking for is input from community members on what they would like to see enhance the public square.
To submit ideas or join in the conversation, submit comments on the Stevens Point website at www.stevenspoint.com/FormCenter/Contact-Us-6-6/Comments–Suggestions-for-the-Mayor-40-40.