Chopped Liver

Saturday Market needs to be considered in downtown Eugene’s future

Does anyone remember Bizarro World? It was a DC Comics planet, a mirror of Earth, except everything was opposite. Sometimes I feel as though Eugene must be a city located on the planet Bizarro.

From November to April, all winter long, downtown Eugene on Saturday is a ghost town. Locals gather and drink coffee at Full City while the city downtown sleeps in. Not much else goes on to attract people to downtown. It’s a dreary, empty place.

Then, on the second Saturday in April, with spring in the air, something miraculous happens. Everything changes as Saturday Market returns to the park blocks. It’s like a small town when the circus arrives. Cars, vans and pickups start arriving before dawn. Crews erect awnings and set up tables. Booths go up. The smell of fresh coffee permeates the early morning. The park blocks are filled with activity and energy, color and life. Downtown Eugene is alive once again, until fall, when the Saturday Market closes up shop for the winter.

Across the street, on the sidewalk around the fringes of the county-owned butterfly lot, the Farmer’s Market also emerges, taking full advantage of the opportunity created by Saturday Market’s drawing power. Saturday Market draws thousands of people to downtown Eugene.

The market has 275 booths, employs 600 people and draws 10,000 to 15,000 people every week — thousands of people who are obviously not downtown the rest of the year. More than $2 million will be spent at Saturday Market before it shuts down for the season in the fall.

In addition to the jobs and the vitality created by drawing thousands of people to an otherwise largely deserted downtown Eugene, Saturday Market is a business incubator for a host of small businesses that started there. Businesses like Wandering Goat Coffee Roasters and Toby’s Foods and others all got their start at Saturday Market.

If the Farmers Market were not there, Saturday Market would not even notice the loss of the several hundred people it draws. Take Saturday Market away, however, and downtown Eugene remains a ghost town and Farmers Market sales plummet.

So, why does the city of Eugene largely ignore Saturday Market as it plans for the new City Hall and “improved” Park Blocks? Every mention about the convoluted plans to build the new City Hall includes a new building for the Farmers Market, with no mention at all of Saturday Market. It’s as if the city does not even acknowledge the existence of Saturday Market. The market might wonder, “What are we, chopped liver?”

Meanwhile, the city plans “improvements” to the Park Blocks with no consideration at all about how they will impact Saturday Market. The city hints it might displace Saturday Market with construction during the market’s run. Closing the Park Blocks down for construction between April and November would be devastating to the 600 people who rely on the market for their livelihoods. It would also impact the other downtown businesses that benefit from the people who come downtown for Saturday Market. Talk about dumb.

There is something very wrong with this picture. The city of Eugene will do anything to promote and help the Farmers Market but won’t give the time of day to Saturday Market, except of course to hint they might have to vacate the Park Blocks when it would hurt them the most. Really? The city won’t commit to a construction schedule that will not devastate Saturday Market?

Only on Bizarro would the city commit to providing a new building for the Farmers Market, while entertaining plans to shut Saturday Market down for construction in the middle of the season. Only on Bizarro would the city thumb its nose at an institution that has brought economic vitality to downtown Eugene continuously since 1971.

Please do not get me wrong. I like the Farmers Market. We are lucky to have it. It’s a vital part of my favorite place. I shop there. I encourage you to shop there. However, the city needs to work closely and cooperatively with both markets, and the markets should be working cooperatively with each other. The city could, and should, require them to work and plan together. For example, while Saturday Market is open until 5 pm, the Farmer’s Market closes at 3 pm, what’s up with that?

If this were Earth, instead of Bizarro, the city would reach out to both markets and do whatever it could to ensure both of their futures. The city would guarantee not to disrupt Saturday Market during market season.

The city is doing that with the Farmers Market, committing to a new building. Why would they not do that with Saturday Market? Both markets are part of what makes Eugene my favorite place. But the Farmers Market is the tail and Saturday Market is clearly the dog. And the dog wags the tail, not the other way around. Unless, of course, you live on Bizarro World.

Bob Warren retired in 2012 as the regional business development officer for Business Oregon for Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Benton counties.

This post has been updated.