County ends SR Farmers Market Lease

Redwood Empire Farmers' Markets get lease for Vet's building market in 2012

Sonoma County has decided not to renew its lease with the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market.

After months of negotiations, financial reports and public showdowns over a proposed rent hike at the Santa Rosa Veteran’s Hall, Sonoma County Regional Parks officials have accepted a new entity, The Redwood Empire Farmers’ Markets, as tenant. They will begin operations at Veteran’s Hall in Santa Rosa in July 2012.

According to Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, whose department oversees the operation of the Veteran’s Hall, “I had a space and a set price for it. The (Redwood Empire Farmers Markets) wanted to pay the full amount.” She said that the current market lease expires on June 30, 2012.

At issue was a proposed rent increase beginning in July that would nearly double the current annual fees of $23,875 paid by the market for the use of the Veteran’s Hall parking lot on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Market manager Paula Downing balked at the increase, claiming that the $57,660 annual rental price proposed by the county would end up hurting local farmers and the market. For the past 10 years, the Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market  paid a significantly discounted rate — up to 75 percent lower than what would normally be asked — to use the lot at Brookwood and Maple avenues. That’s added up to more than $156,000 in rent breaks, according to records.

However, financial records submitted by Downing to show the market’s income and expenses, and ultimately its need for continued subsidies by the county failed to convince officials.

“This is very valuable public space and there is a lot of demand for it. We’ve given a lot of concessions, and as a landlord it was clear to me that (the existing market) was not interested in doing business with the county,” Hart said. “The new group has the space reserved and have put down the deposit.”

The new market organization is a collection of current market vendors, farmers and community members, according to spokesman Rob Cary, former Sebastopol Community Center Director.  The group is in the process of formalizing its board of directors, bylaws and certification, but Cary said he hopes to make the transition seamless for the public.

“The new market will continue (on Wednesday and Saturday) at the Veteran’s building without interruption, under new management. The stall rates will remain the same as they currently are. We want to have a smooth transition for everyone,” said Cary. Downing will be invited to apply for the new market manager position and Cary said there will be no fee increases for the vendors of the Redwood Empire Farmers’ Markets to offset the rent increase.

For Downing, the changeover amounts to a coup. In a blog post on the farm market website, she announced early Friday that the county had, “unilaterally and arbitrarily terminated the market’s lease negotiations and announced that they have made arrangements with another farmers market” without her official knowledge. She has asked the public and current vendors to meet at the Veteran’s Hall at 1:30pm on Saturday, Feb. 25 to discuss the future of the current market. “Not only has the rent been raised substantially, but some of our members/vendors…are bidding on this space in hope of replacing the market with a market of their own!” claimed a flier Downing passed out at last Saturday’s market.

Downing hopes to keep interest alive in maintaining the current market leadership and possibly changing the county’s mind about the space. “I’ve done enough politics to know that it’s never over and not to give up hope,” she said. Downing also said she is looking at possible new spaces for the existing market in Santa Rosa. “This is very emotional. I feel really sad. I feel like I have responsibility to these (vendors and farmers).”

An undercurrent to much of the upheaval is a public feud inside the market that’s been simmering since 2010. A number of vendors called for the firing of Downing from the market, ultimately removing her and installing a new board of directors. Weeks later, however, Downing and the original board were reinstated. After the tousle, several vendors alleged retaliatory acts by Downing, including the owners of Gleason Ranch who filed a pending lawsuit against the market in 2011. Former and current members of the market, including the owners of Gleason Ranch, have been supportive of the creation of the Redwood Empire Farmers’ Market.

Regardless of the history, for the county, a tenant means a new start.

“This is a fresh opportunity,” said Hart. “From my perspective it would be best if everyone could come together and stop all the acrimony. The number one interest of the county is a market that provides healthy local food in a vibrant and positive way,” said Hart. “Sometimes change is good.”