Market meets to discuss its future

Kent Porter/PD
Kent Porter/PD

With the future of the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market in flux, about 200 market vendors and customers packed into the Veterans Memorial Hall on Saturday to discuss its fate with the new board of directors.

Reading from a three-page prepared statement, board secretary Lesley Brabyn of Salmon Creek Ranch said the board, installed Jan. 28, had been blindsided by the county’s recent decision not to renew the market’s longtime lease.

Throughout the morning, news that the market had lost its lease buzzed from stall to stall, with customers mostly confused and vendors trying to piece together what information they could.

At stake is the continuation of the county’s popular year-round farm market. Each week in the parking lot of the Veterans Memorial Hall, nearly 100 vendors offer meat, cheese, produce, baked goods and crafts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

For the time being, that will stay the same. But come July, a new market operator is slated to take over.

County officials said Friday that a new entity, Redwood Empire Farmers Markets, had signed a new, more expensive lease and would run the market starting July 4.

In the sometimes contentious hourlong meeting Saturday, board representatives said they weren’t given time to let members vote on a proposed 167 percent fee hike. They said the county’s Regional Parks Department had rushed into leasing the space to a new operator without “due process.”

Brabyn also said that a lawsuit filed against the market and individual board members by Gleason Ranch owners had been a major distraction to pursuing the lease. “Rent could have probably been resolved if resources not been distracted by this lawsuit,” she said.

In questions from the audience, concerns included who the new market managers would be, whether the market could stay in its current location and, if not, where it might move to.

Brabyn said that the board had begun looking for possible new locations in Railroad Square or possibly at the Fairgrounds near the jockey club, but ultimately hoped the county would rescind its decision not to renew their lease.

The board made only brief reference to the new operators, Redwood Empire Farmers Markets. The fledgling group, made up primarily of former and current market vendors, was in attendance.

Spokesman Rob Cary said all current vendors would be invited to apply for the new market. During the meeting, several individuals expressed hope that the two markets could work together, but Braybn said “quite a few vendors have no plans to operate under new management.”

For their part, vendors expressed concern about negative publicity and how it might affect the market’s popularity.

“I’m worried about how customers are going to see the conflict. If you upset the customers and they have a bad taste, they won’t come. And then no one here will be successful,” said Shannon Hoffmann of Crumb Hither, who has been at the market for three years.

Market customer Irema Sivcevic said she wants to see continuity. “I see a thriving market. I like how it is running, and I like the uniqueness of the market. That is what I want to keep. For the politics, I don’t care,” she said.

Longtime market participants noted that management upheaval at the market isn’t new.

“This market has forever been in discord. This is not the first or the last time,” said Ross BeVier, a longtime vendor. “As long as there is a democratic process, there is going to be dissent.”