News Column

Area farmers disgaree on location of downtown Fayetteville farmers market

July 6, 2014

By Gregory Phillips, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

July 06--The city's resistance to housing a farmers market in the downtown parking deck has crystallized a split among local produce growers.

Some favor sticking with the city market outside the transportation museum on Franklin Street, but the reconfigured Farmers Market Association is seeking a site elsewhere.

While Fayetteville State University students were able to set up a farmers market on Murchison Road in May that is already thriving, the city and county are still struggling to come together on a communitywide project.

"We can't afford to sit out another season," said Vince Evans, who leads -- albeit reluctantly -- the reconfigured Farmers Market Association. "We've got to move forward, we've got to get established."

For years, the farmers market shuffled from place to place downtown. Since 2011, it has existed side by side with a city market of craft vendors outside the Fayetteville Area Transportation and Local History Museum. The market has proved popular, especially on Saturdays. But some growers found it less than ideal, without the space to pull up and sell from their trucks. The two markets also have slightly different rules, with the city market not requiring that all produce be locally grown, though most of it is.

The county extension office won a state grant to study the issue and suggest potential sites for a permanent farmers market. The consultants it hired said downtown was the best area, and suggested the new, award-winning, airy but underused parking deck just a block from the museum.

It would, they suggested, keep the market downtown, provide shelter for vendors and offer separation between the produce and crafts while keeping them close enough to share customers.

"I think it would help downtown and it would help the vendors," said county Commissioner Jimmy Keefe. "With very minimal investment, we could have a fully functioning farmers market. If it tanks, what have we lost?"

The idea seemed to have the potential to please everyone. But city staff balked. Rochelle Small-Toney, a deputy city manager, told a joint city-county committee in June the plan creates potential zoning and liability issues; could conflict with the financial agreements under which the deck was built; would limit the available parking; and lacks restrooms and utility connections.

Last week, Small-Toney said via email those concerns arose from a preliminary review. She said it has since emerged there are no zoning obstacles to using the deck. She said the city's bond counsel would have to review any arrangement with the farmers market to confirm it doesn't violate the federal financing agreements.

Small-Toney said she stands by the city's suggestion that an expanded footprint at the museum is the best home for the market.

The committee is set to discuss the matter again in August. Mayor Nat Robertson said the parking deck recommendation needs more consideration.

"I don't believe the city has taken the consultants' report as seriously as we should," he said. "I would hope the city would not be closed to the idea."

But some growers at the city market aren't keen on the deck either.

"I just don't think it would go over well down there," said Robert Blackman, who sells vegetables grown on his farm in Vander. "I never have."

Bruce Daws is the historic properties manager who oversees the city market. He said there's been a lot of miscommunication about the museum site, which he said offers shelter and room for growth.

"I certainly don't want to be in the position to tell these people, 'You've got to go across the street,'" he said. "A lot of the people here are happy, they've got shade, they've got bathrooms. We've put an ATM machine in, they can draw power."

Daws said that after years of drift, the market has become established in one spot on Wednesdays from 2 to 6 and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, with as many as 600 customers at the weekend.

"People know now that this is where you come," he said. "We're a city museum that's hosting this very viable program. Our objective was to bring exposure to the museum and surrounding business, and provide a family-friendly event downtown."

So why couldn't the farmers market stay there? The city and farmers markets have slightly different rules. The city market has a vetting process but not when it comes to produce. The farmers market requires everything be grown within 50 miles of Fayetteville.

The consultants highlighted solid management as crucial to the success of the farmers market. They recommended the farmers market association regroup with an advisory board to oversee operations. Evans' peers nudged him into a leadership role, but the overlap between the city and farmers markets has left membership of the two muddled in recent weeks. Evans said he is focused on the farmers market's specific mission.

"The biggest thing is if you're coming from out of town and you came for the farmers market, you want to taste Fayetteville," Evans said. "You don't want South Carolina. That's what we want to hold up to."

Evans said the association liked the parking deck proposal, but then city staff told them it was off the table.

"Now our picture's clear," Evans said. "We have to find ourselves a home."

The consultants said Ramsey Street and Raeford Road could also be successful spots for a pop-up tent market, similar to a successful one in Carrboro that has been a model for other cities. Evans said the association is talking with property owners in those corridors.

"We're sticking right with the consultants' plan," Evans said. "Which I feel like we should, so the citizens don't feel like we wasted that money."

Evans, who farms off McArthur Road in north Fayetteville, also sells at the new Murchison Road market and said its success shows the demand is there.

"We couldn't get stuff on tables before people were buying it," he said, estimating that about 70 percent of the customers ask if he grew the veggies himself.

"Everybody's becoming conscious of where that food is coming from," he said. "That's what is driving this."

During the city-county discussion of the plans, City Councilman Larry Wright said the city market is in danger of becoming a flea market. Daws and the vendors bristled at that description.

"We don't sell Elvis on velvet," Daws said. "The artisans that we have are very skilled and take a great deal of pride in their work."

Richard Herring sells his own woodwork -- canes, baskets and so on -- at the market.

"It's not second-hand, it's stuff people have made themselves," he said. "There's no flea market items here."

Daws said he wishes the farmers market well.

"The other markets that are being proposed are a great thing; I think the more the merrier," he said. "We're not in competition with anybody. We're hosting a market; that's what we're doing."

Evans said the farmers market will do what it must to survive, but it's a shame the parking deck idea got short shrift.

"If everybody feels like it's a good idea then let's make it happen," he said. "Don't find no obstacles. You find a way around the obstacles, that's our attitude."

Staff writer Gregory Phillips can be reached at or 486-3596.


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