Representatives from Friends of Evanston Farmers Markets (FEFM), a local nonprofit that advocates eating local, are scheduled to meet with city officials next week to discuss concerns they have about a recently issued consultants’ report, which called for moving the outdoor Saturday market to the Fountain Square area.
The group has come out strongly against the recommendation, found in the action plan proposed by Philadelphia-based Interface Studio as one way to improve the city’s retail districts.
The report recommended the city consider a move of the market from its current location at the intersection of University and Oak Avenue, adjacent to the city’s 1800 Maple Avenue parking garage, to Fountain Square.
At the existing location, farmers can arrive at “3 a.m., and start unloading and everything, and all that noise downtown [in the Fountain Square area] probably wouldn’t be welcome,” said Vikki Proctor, president of FEFM board, explaining the group’s opposition.
The farmers also need their trucks close to them, “and there’s no room for that in Fountain Square. … It truly would probably just kill the market,” she said.
The group had fought off a similar proposal from the city in 2021 to move the market to the core downtown area. After officials stepped back from moving ahead, Lawrence Hemingway, the city’s parks and recreation director at the time, assured FEFM members that “if there was any change in the location of the market, that the Friends and the market manager would be invited to that conversation,” recalled Proctor.
“The Friends of Evanston Farmers Markets was more than cool to this plan when it was proposed in 2021,” the group said in a posting on its website. “Aside from any other reasons, that was largely because there had been no contact with the Market Manager or with vendors to obtain opinions and data about whether the notion was feasible, and how the change of venue would affect the market’s size and popularity.”
To ‘prepare and pilot for’ a move
The “Evanston Thrives Framework” created through Interface’s action report has given new life to the idea of transplanting the farmers market. And, although the creators of the draft plan appear to have done a lot of outreach in developing their proposals, that outreach did not include the current management of the market or any of its nearly 60 vendors, the group said.
Last year, the city contracted with Interface for $245,000 to conduct a study for a plan to improve the city’s business districts as they emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and fallout. One recommendation of the action plan was for the city “to prepare for and pilot” a farmers market move to Fountain Square.
Noting that the city does not own the property where the market currently takes place, the report’s authors speculated that if the current owner, Northwestern University, chooses to redevelop that property, the market would need to find a new home.
“Exploring options for a future location makes sense,” they maintained. At present, they stated further, “it’s possible to be in downtown Evanston on a summer Saturday and not even realize the market is happening.”
The consultants spoke of the strong public response they received putting together the study, reporting that a total of 2,093 surveys were completed, with a total of 202 business owners participating. Proctor confirmed she and other members of the board, and farmers too, were not among them.
“I was pretty shocked when the report came out,” she said, describing her reaction. “I don’t know who they talked with. I have no idea. … I read through the whole thing. I think we were just poorly served. To me, how could they not talk at least with the market manager?”
Proctor said she understood the challenge that businesses in the Fountain Square area went through, dealing with the pandemic. “A lot of businesses were closed; we’ve lost” (a lot), she said. “You just have to take a quick walk downtown and you can see that, right? But to think the farmers market is going to save downtown is just not clear thinking.”
Audrey Thompson, the current parks and recreation director, did not respond to an email from the RoundTable requesting to talk to Myra Gorman, the city’s manager of the market for the past 12 years, to get her perspective on the move.
Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development manager whose department worked closely with the consultants on the $245,000 report, did not respond to a call and text, either.
Sarah Kellerman, Interface Studio’s point person on the project, and Annie Coakley, executive director of Downtown Evanston, also did not reply to emails from the RoundTable.
In an April 2 letter to the RoundTable, Proctor and other members of the Evanston Farmers Market Board laid out other concerns, including the city and consultant report ignoring the needs of market vendors and shoppers.
“The farmers, vendors and market shoppers have not been contacted by Downtown Evanston or the city’s economic development department even though the market is managed by the city,” the board members contended.
Vendors have adequate space to sell at their current location, they said, citing some of its benefits, such as free parking for patrons in the Maple Avenue self park garage and quick access to trucks for farmers. The farmers, who often arrive in the middle of the night, can set up without disturbing residents.
“We recognize that the current market location, a parking lot space owned by Northwestern, might be sold in the future; the market would have to be relocated,” FEFM said. But that is not the primary issue at this time, board members added.
The report failed to take into account some essential features the current location provides, as well as the deficits involved in moving the market to Fountain Square, said Emily Guthrie, an FEFM board member as well as the group’s secretary.
When the city floated the idea two years ago, she said a move would come with a condition that farmers would not be able to park their trucks on the street and would have to park them in the garage.
“There’s no garage for two blocks any direction,” she pointed out, “and a lot of the bigger farmers never completely unload their trucks. They take out enough to put in display, and then when they need more corn, they bring out more corn. They’re not going to walk two blocks and schlep back a couple bushels of corn.”
The notion that moving the market to Fountain Square would enhance surrounding businesses is not necessarily true, Guthrie said, recalling the effect on a store she ran in the Chicago Avenue/Main Street area during the early years of the Custer Street Festival of the Arts.
“There was music and lemon ice and all kinds of stuff there,” she said about the fair. “They [fair attendees] just didn’t go into our businesses. It killed our business that one day. So the idea was you’re going to run this for 27 weeks in the downtown where retail is already hurting?
“Saturdays are typically the busiest day of the week for any retail,” she observed. “So you’re going to kill them [the surrounding businesses] at the same time. So, it’s like, ‘Okay, who did they [the consultants] talk to?
“You haven’t talked to any farmers, because they will tell you, ‘I don’t want to park my truck two blocks away from Fountain Square.’”
Current market already generates business
A survey conducted by the parks and recreation department during the 2015 market season found farmers market shoppers spent $1.95 million at downtown businesses.
“Significant, I think,” Proctor said.
She said members of the Friends board have a planned meeting with Mayor Daniel Biss and other city officials April 19 to discuss their concerns.
At that meeting, Friends members said they hope to learn how a plan was developed “without consulting the people who currently make the Downtown Evanston Farmers Market a continuing success.”