Bursting at the Seams

Lane County Farmers Market looks for room to grow

Photo by Todd Cooper

For a market that doesn’t include any sardine vendors, the briny fish is often thrown into descriptions of the Saturday Lane County Farmers Market: “People are packed in there like sardines.”

“I think the site has been a real problem,” Jack Gray of Winter Green Farm says. He says they could sell more produce if they could just have a little more room. Plus, the crowded walkways might be discouraging some potential customers. “Basic accessibility is really bad for families or anyone with physical disabilities of any sorts,” Gray says.

The Park Blocks (the plaza at 8th and Oak where Saturday Market is also held) also host a market on Tuesdays during warmer months, as does the Amazon Community Center on Thursdays. During Saturday Market’s Holiday Market, the Farmers Market sets up at the Lane County Fairgrounds.

The need for an expanded market doesn’t end with farmers and market customers. Oregon’s economy has been seeking a savior since the timber economy contracted, and local food advocates say that the Willamette Valley’s foodshed is its greatest hope for a sustainable economic future. The “how-to-expand” debate has continued for more than a decade, with no timeline for a solution in sight.

The Farmers Market, a separate organization from Saturday Market’s craft market, squeezes into every available nook and cranny at 8th and Park every Saturday, February through early November. While piles upon piles of fresh veggies, fruits, animal products and baked goods keep many patrons returning week after week, vendors say the lack of space is limiting. The Farmers Market and its coordinating committees at the city and county have been looking at options, including experimenting with the Saturday closure of 8th Avenue, growing onto the so-called “butterfly lot” and moving to 5th Street Market. But after years of discussion, nothing is decided and the market continues at its present size.

Our Farms, Our Futures

The Farmers Market says it doesn’t calculate an official estimate of its impact on the local economy. But Springfield’s Marketplace@Sprout!, the year-round indoor-outdoor farmers market run by the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO), does have numbers. NEDCO Assistant Director Sarai Johnson says that during its regular season in 2012 (before moving into their indoor location), the Springfield Farmers Market had a $2.5 million impact on the local economy, partly through an increase in foot traffic and sales for downtown merchants.

In 2001, an OSU report found that the Farmers Market’s Tuesday market draws almost half its attendees to the area specifically for the market. If that holds true today, even to a lesser extent, the spillover effect that sends market customers to neighboring businesses is a boon to Eugene’s finally recovering downtown.

Dan Armstrong, the Farmers Market’s community director, says that the valley used to have a better food production infrastructure, from agriculture to canneries, and rebuilding that infrastructure is critical for intertwined economic and environmental reasons. “We protect ourselves in the future by protecting our local sources of food,” he says.

Right now, the Farmers Market needs more space for its 50-70 vendors and its customers, and the organization usually has five to 10 vendors on a waiting list. Groups looking at how to make that happen say they haven’t ruled out any option, and it’s a conversation that’s been ongoing for years.

Gray says that some local farmers sell at markets out of the area due to the Farmers Market’s crowded market and waitlist. “The organization needs to grow, and one of the ways to do that well is through a better site,” Gray says.

8th Avenue

A better site isn’t necessarily a different site. For years, some advocates have been pushing for a trial closure of 8th Avenue on Saturdays to see if the extra space could alleviate the market’s traffic jam without stressing the transportation system.

Local jewelry designer and Farmers Market fan Hannah Goldrich, who has been on the Farmers Market’s community board for a year, says any expansion plan should strive to preserve the symbiotic economic relationship between the Farmers Market and the Saturday Market. “I would love them to stay together,” she says. “I think there’s a different clientele to the two places, but they overlap.” Customers often cross the street on a whim, just because they see something that catches their interest, she says. “I think [closing 8th] would be absolutely marvelous — and the simplest.”

Staying at the Park Blocks has another benefit for the Farmers Market: $500,000 in urban renewal funding for site improvements. Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz says the money can only be used for improvements to the Park Blocks for the Farmers Market. Ruiz says the city’s role is to “work with farmers on what is the best way to spend the money in a way that has a lasting benefit,” and that its input from farmers and the market that will determine how — and if — the money is spent.

Saturday Market officially opposes closing 8th Avenue on Saturdays, says General Manager Beth Little. “Before we open at 10 am, 140 vendors must have access to and set up on the West Park Block alone, which is now accessible on four sides along West Park Street for loading,” she says. “A street closure would have to occur very early in order for the Farmers Market to set up,” and all Saturday Market vendors would have to load from Oak Street. She says the closure would also eliminate 20 parking spaces, including one of two nearby handicapped spaces, and she worries that customers wouldn’t find their way back from parking the nearby Parcade after driving around 6th Avenue to enter it.

“At the very least, we would ask for an opportunity to speak of our concerns and possible solutions before any decisions are made that will affect our ability to continue to offer the community a vibrant marketplace,” Little says. “We believe there is a solution that will provide more room for the Farmers Market without closing streets and we are willing to work together to find a solution that helps both the markets.”

Little says she hopes that the Farmers Market considers options like using the City Hall parking lot, which is in sight of the existing Farmers Market, in addition to other proposals. “The Farmers Market has the absolute right to determine their future,” she says, “but we would love to be at the table as other things that have been brought up are considered.”

The Farmers Market’s Armstrong says closing 8th Avenue could help as a Band-Aid, but he doesn’t see it as a permanent solution. He says the option is on the table, but he would prefer to work toward a permanent solution, especially one that enables a year-round, indoor-outdoor market, similar to Sprout! in Springfield.

Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson echoes the need for something long-term. “When you look at farmers markets that are very successful over long periods of time, you’ll see that they often involve a permanent place,” such as Pike Place Market in Seattle or Union Square in New York City, he says.

Butterfly Lot

Staying at the Park Blocks is also an option if the Farmers Market can work out a shared space with Lane County. Armstrong says he’s spent a year researching the use of the so-called “butterfly” parking lot, a county-owned, half-block parking structure at Oak Street between 7th and 8th avenues that was donated specifically for the County Courthouse. The Farmers Market now snakes around the butterfly-shaped parking structure.

Armstrong thinks it’s the perfect space for a permanent indoor-outdoor market, and students from UO architecture courses have presented designs of the space as a farmers market to the County Commission. Ruiz says that the $500,000 in urban renewal funds could also be used on the butterfly site.

There’s one problem with that option, Commissioner Sorenson says, concerning the deed restriction on the property. The commission has received a letter from former presiding judge Mary Ann Bearden urging them to be careful of violating the intent of the 1854 donation by Eugene and Mary Skinner.

“That is a factor that needs to be resolved,” Sorenson says. He says that the two-story parking structure is in bad shape and should be demolished before it collapses. One solution, he says, is developing up instead of out and holding a market in a “grand public space” in front of a large vertical building, similar to the Saturday farmers market in front of Portland State University. “You could achieve your goal of having a future space for a courthouse that would be enhanced by the fact that there is a farmers market there,” he says. “I don’t see the two as incompatible.”

Armstrong thinks that the parking lot’s deed restriction has been violated so many times that it could be legally moot, but he hasn’t gotten anywhere pursuing this avenue with Lane County. “I can’t imagine anything happening in the next 10 years,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to be accessible.”

5th Street Market

While 8th Avenue and the butterfly lot have been discussed for years, a proposal Lane County commissioners discussed in February (for new apartments by developer Brian Obie) included plans for the Farmers Market to move to land at 6th and Oak, near Obie-owned 5th Street Public Market. The proposal said momentum was under way for the housing and “the eminent potential of including the Lane County Farmer’s Market as a center piece of the development.”

Obie says that both 5th Street Public Market and the Farmers Market are doing very well right now. “We think the Farmers Market would gain from that and we from their presence,” he says. He suggests looking to Portland to see how separate craft and farmers markets can flourish. “They’ve got a thriving farmers market and Saturday Market that are independent.”

Goldrich, the jewelery designer on the Farmers Market advisory board, says that spontaneous exchange of customers between Saturday Market and the farmers market would drop if the Farmers Market moves to 5th. “I think both markets would suffer if they were separated,” she says, and she also worries about a reduced draw for downtown merchants. “I don’t want to move it over to 5th; I think that is taking it away from downtown,” she says.

Armstrong says that the Obie option is still being discussed just as the Park Blocks options are still being discussed. He says that while the Farmers Market views Saturday Market as a partner, moving to the other site could help establish the Farmers Market’s identity as a separate entity.

“It’s the first offer of anything that’s come up for a permanent offer and covered space,” Armstrong says.

David Funk of downtown marketing agency bell + funk, which has clients including downtown businesses, says that the Farmers Market’s proximity to downtown is important on many levels. “Market spillover is important to downtown retailers and restaurateurs particularly, and downtown in general,” he says. “People beget people, and the more bodies we have downtown, the more attractive downtown is to everyone. On the flip side, there are thousands of people employed downtown, which represent a great customer base for the Farmers Market.”

Funk says that many people have been working hard to rebuild downtown into a vibrant city center. “The Farmers Market has a long tradition downtown,” he says. “Farmers have been bringing their produce to the city center for decades. Downtown is where a farmers market should be and where you’d expect to find one anywhere in the world.”

Nothing Concrete

Sarai Johnson of NEDCO says that a few years ago, a study from UO showed that if local food consumption increased by just 1 percent in a year, approximately $12 million could be retained in the local economy. Sorenson says that figure will become even more important as fuel prices rise; he says a few years ago, the average food item in a Eugene store had been shipped approximately 500 miles. That’s a huge motivation for the market’s advocates and local governments to get their ducks in a row, but Armstrong emphasizes that the market is still considering all the options and doesn’t have a timeline.

If it seems strange that Eugene’s Farmers Market has debated for a decade without settling on a plan while Springfield’s market, founded in 2008, has already gone year-round and indoor-outdoor, Johnson says it makes sense to her. She says that expanding rapidly was less complicated for Sprout!, formerly known as the Springfield Farmers Market, because it had a different starting point as a much-younger institution and a different set of challenges. “The issue we don’t have that makes it easier for us is the long history of political embattlements that happen in Eugene,” she says.