Farmer’s Market makes waves

Christie Smith

As the semester winds down, the downtown Ames Farmer’s Market is gearing up. The market, located on the 300 and 400 blocks of Main Street, will be held every Saturday morning from May 7 to Oct. 15.

While many anticipate the market opening for homegrown fruits and vegetables, handmade goods and live bands, not everyone in Ames is excited for the 24-week span of crowded streets and inconvenient parking.

Rick Swank, owner of Swank’s Jewelry at 319 Main St., brought a petition to City Council this winter asking that the market be moved off of Main Street.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who cannot understand why it’s [on Main Street],” Swank said.

After hearing complaints from his customers that they could not find parking within a few blocks of his store during Farmer’s Market Saturdays, Swank said he began researching the impact the parking and traffic congestion of the market was having on his business.

“People kept coming in saying ‘why do you put up with this?’” Swank said.

Swank discovered he was losing a “big amount of money” during Farmer’s Market season, though he declined to give an exact figure. He said he discussed his concerns with Councilman Tim Gartin before deciding to start a petition.

“If I can get (customers) in here, then it’s my job to sell them,” Swank said. “I can’t market something if nobody can get here.”

According to Swank, his petition gathered 170 signatures, including those of 17 downtown business owners. He said at least six other business owners told him privately they did not support the market’s current location, but they did not want to come forward with an opinion they felt would be unpopular among their customers.

Swank’s concerns were of no surprise to market organizers, said Lojean Petersen, Farmer’s Market manager. She said the city was aware there had been concerns since the market was first moved to Main Street in 2011, but this year was the first time anyone had made a formal written complaint.

The complaint, though not a surprise, was confusing to Petersen who said that the Chamber of Commerce’s surveys have consistently shown overwhelming support for the market among Main Street businesses.

“We have an 87 percent approval rating,” Petersen said.

The survey asked 55 downtown businesses on the 200-400 blocks their opinion on the location of the market; 48 supported it, six were against it, and one was indifferent.

Andrea Gronau, manager of Worldly Goods and a member of the Main Street Cultural District, is one of the 87 percent who supports the Farmer’s Market.

“I take advantage of putting things out on the street during market time,” Gronau said.

She said Worldly Goods will put baskets on the sidewalk that passersby can purchase to carry their fresh produce from the market. She also leaves a sign out advertising their free fair trade coffee samples and leaves the door open to invite shoppers in.

For Gronau, the issue of finding parking downtown on a Saturday morning is a good sign.

“How exciting it is that we’re having this issue,” Gronau said, a busy downtown is a sign of a “vital downtown.”

Busy, indeed, according to Petersen the market brings around 72,000 people downtown over the course of the 24-week season. The number does not describe unique visitors, but rather a total of visitors at all markets.

“It’s become a destination,” Petersen said.

Petersen said the number was calculated by volunteers, many from the ISU Greek community, who attended three markets throughout the season and counted every person entering the market at each of three access points.

The average market attendance is around 2,500 people per Saturday, with more than 3,000 in attendance during the peak of the season, Petersen said.

Swank said he thought the number was “totally exaggerated.” Despite other businesses’ claims that they experienced a lot of traffic during the market, Swank said he rarely got any new customers to wander in.

Tara Hannusch, owner of Grey Elephant, said it isn’t uncommon for her clothing store to be empty until after 2 p.m. on market days. She said the market makes business difficult, especially during football season when fans can’t get downtown before kickoff, but she said she was “indifferent” about the location.

Hannusch said that if the market were to be taken away from downtown, it would take the people away from downtown too.

Aaron Millard, an employee at Downtown Deli, had similar frustrations. He said the market made business slow on Saturdays and made parking difficult for potential customers, but he said he could see how non-food businesses would benefit from the increased foot traffic on Main Street.

Ultimately, he said, the parking issues on Farmer’s Market Saturdays could happen on a busy Saturday anyway, regardless of the market.

Ali Cakes owner Ali Kenealy said she looks forward to her first Farmer’s Market as a business owner on Main Street.

“I love the Farmer’s Market anyway,” Kenealy said. “Now it’s right outside my front door.”

Kenealy said she has already started brainstorming ways to draw customers in to her store by opening earlier in the morning and offering samples.

Several other business owners on Main Street said during a City Council public forum March 1 and during interviews with The Daily that they had planned on altering hours, offering free samples or creating sidewalk displays to cater to the Farmer’s Market crowd.

The public support for the market at the council meeting March 1 was mostly positive, and the council voted unanimously to approve the market’s 2016 location for Main Street.

“Personally, I just can’t imagine it being moved anywhere else because it would be a negative to move it off of Main Street rather than a positive compromise in this case,” Gronau said. “I would rather help and support the businesses who are expressing concern than to move the Farmer’s Market.”

As a member of the Main Street Cultural District, Gronau said she has reached out to the affected businesses to offer marketing help during the Farmer’s Market.

“There is a community down here [on Main Street], it’s like a family,” Gronau said. “We just want everyone to get along.”

Swank proposed several compromises for the market in a letter accompanying his petition to the City Council. Though none of the compromises were enacted for the 2016 season, the council said they would consider changes in the future.

Swank said he would be happier with a number of different adjustments, including moving the market either a block north or south—to Fifth Street or the parking area between Main Street and the railroad—shortening the market season, or moving the market to a different day of the week.

Petersen said she attended several Farmer’s Markets in central Iowa, including the Des Moines Farmer’s Market, voted second-best market in America in 2014 by The Daily Meal, to research possible alternatives.

Many of the alternative locations would not provide the needed electricity, would create even bigger parking issues or would interfere with CyRide routes or bank drive-thrus, Petersen said.

One solution she considered would be arranging the market so the vendors face the businesses, drawing traffic to the sidewalks and closer to business doors. Petersen attended the Valley Junction Farmer’s Market in West Des Moines where they utilize this set-up.

Despite her high hopes, Petersen said the Valley Junction layout was crowded and made navigating the market difficult. More importantly, though, Petersen said she was concerned about the tripping hazard posed by placing vendors along the curb.

As for moving the market to another day of the week, Petersen said she had concerns about the impact that could have on visitors and vendors alike.

“Sunday is a day off,” Petersen said. “Even for vendors, they work hard during the week; I think they need a day off too.”

She said a weekday evening market would be a possibility, though vendors have told her they feel evening markets are not as well-attended.

While no one has the answers, no one seems to be giving up.

Swank said that he cannot create a sidewalk display with his jewelry or utilize a back door for insurance purposes, but he has considered offering Saturday Farmer’s Market specials on his merchandise or altering his hours to be open later during the week and closing on Saturdays altogether.

He said he’s glad he brought the issue to the attention of the council and that many other community members have since thanked him for making a stance.

“It’s getting to a financial point for me that I have to stand up and be counted,” Swank said.

Petersen said she has allotted 15-foot spaces for each of this year’s vendors, leaving space on either side of their 10-foot tents so visitors can better see and access the Main Street businesses behind the vendors. She also said she plans to create signage throughout the market this year highlighting the various businesses on Main Street.

Councilman Chris Nelson suggested organizing a free shuttle service for the elderly or mobility-impaired who cannot find close parking to access Main Street businesses during the market; Petersen said she’s in the “brainstorming phase” of figuring out how to fund a potential shuttle service.

“We’re going to work really hard at trying to solve the issues so it can be a win/win for everybody,” Petersen said.