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Columbia Missourian

With pavilion stalled, Columbia Farmers' Market must renegotiate lease

By Alison Matas
December 21, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Shoppers walk through the Columbia Farmers Market on a Saturday morning in early October.

COLUMBIA — In 2009, when the leaders of Sustainable Farms and Communities signed a long-term lease for the city-owned land used by the Columbia Farmers' Market, they projected they could break ground on a permanent structure by May 2013.

Sustainable Farms and Communities once boasted $265,000 to put toward the $2.5 million pavilion, the organization’s accountant, Nicki Nixon, said. But with the target date approaching, the organization has only $11,100 left, with little to show for the money already spent.

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After a consultant advised the organization it was unprepared to begin fundraising, Sustainable Farms and Communities tried to raise money, anyway. But internal disagreements, a poor economy and an unpopular executive director hampered fundraising efforts and depleted financial resources, those involved with the project have said. And even though some people support building a less-expensive structure, the lease agreement with the city mandates it be a high-quality community center.

Now under new leadership, members of Sustainable Farms and Communities are attempting to restart the project. According to the May 2009 lease with the city, the organization has a 35-year right to the land for $2,100 per year, with the option of automatically renewing the lease for up to an additional 15 years. But the lease agreement with the city ends May 1, 2013, if site development and construction on the permanent structure hasn’t begun — and there's not enough money to begin work.

The plans for the pavilion originated in the early 2000s, when the Columbia Farmers' Market split from the Boone County Farmers Market over disputes that included whether to build a permanent structure.

Sustainable Farms and Communities — a nonprofit — was created to raise money for the pavilion, which would stand at Ash Street and Clinkscales Road, where the Columbia Farmers' Market meets. The proposed structure, which would feature an enclosed education center, restrooms and 80 covered stalls, was projected to be ready for use in 2013.

Nixon said she’s seen community projects like the pavilion take 10 to 15 years to accomplish with a lot of stop-and-go. “All of a sudden something happens,” she said. “You just have to get to that point where, “Boom!” something happens, and we haven't hit that yet.”

‘Less optimistic and much more cautious’

Before it began its fundraising campaign, Sustainable Farms and Communities hired consultant Tim Rich in 2004 to conduct a study about the feasibility of raising $1.3 million, roughly half the cost of the pavilion.

One of his initial observations was that board members seemed to have different ideas about what the pavilion was supposed to be like — specifically, whether it would be a multi-use facility or simply a permanent farmers market.

Rich held interviews with community members who Sustainable Farms and Communities said would be most likely to donate funds to the project or influence other people to donate funds. He also sent out surveys and surveyed people at the farmers market on Saturdays.

Combined, the more than 130 people surveyed were prepared to give less than $155,000 to the project.

Overall, people seemed willing to donate, but "the constituent group indicating the least amount of support in actual donation dollars was the most positive toward the project. Conversely, the constituent group projecting the largest dollar amount in contributions was less optimistic and much more cautious about the project," according to the report.

While those surveyed thought there was a need for a pavilion, 75 percent said they didn’t believe the leadership team of Sustainable Farms and Communities could raise that money.

Based on the survey results, Rich determined Sustainable Farms and Communities had the capacity to raise $450,000 and needed to make significant changes before attempting to raise $1.3 million.

One recommendation included increasing the number of board members and adding some high-profile Columbia residents — Rich said he interviewed millionaires during the course of his surveys and several of them said they supported the project but didn’t know anything about the people heading it up.

Other suggestions included reconciling differences between the Columbia Farmers' Market and the Boone County Farmers Market, developing a business plan, writing grant proposals and hiring a campaign manager.

Rich cautioned, however, that hiring a fundraiser would take $50,000 to $100,000 up front.

He said he hasn’t followed the project since completing the report, so he didn’t know whether Sustainable Farms and Communities followed his advice.

‘It costs money to raise money’

Sustainable Farms and Communities didn’t grow its board substantially or reconcile the split that led to the creation of the Boone County Farmers Market. But it did follow one piece of advice laid out by the consultant — the organization hired someone to oversee fundraising.

Because Sustainable Farms and Communities was relatively small, Liz Graznak, who is in her fifth year on the board, said it made more sense to hire an executive director rather than a fundraiser.

Board members found Casey Corbin — an Ohio native who'd been living in Alaska — in December 2008.

Graznak estimated Sustainable Farms and Communities received more than 50 applications. Corbin stood out because of his resume and his letters of recommendation, she said.

Corbin has been a fundraiser since 1986, he says, and had worked as a director and consultant for dozens of nonprofits before arriving in Columbia. He showed up planning to build committees filled with people he thought were capable of getting large donations and increasing hype about the project.

Hiring Corbin reinvigorated the board, Graznak said, and had members thinking, "Oh, my God, we can make this happen.'"

But Corbin also said he read Rich’s consulting report before beginning fundraising and was hesitant to launch the project.

“I warned them from the get-go that we were in the worst economic crash in history, and that I did not think it was the right time,” he wrote in an email response to questions from the Missourian.

Graznak said Corbin arrived before the economic downturn but did mention after the crash that it was a bad time to be fundraising.

Some of the challenges Corbin cited included what he called “the selfish nature of Columbia” and disputes with a few other people involved with the project.

Kenneth Pigg, who is the new chairman of the Sustainable Farms and Communities board, said he was told Corbin could be abrasive. Corbin described himself in an interview with the Columbia Business Times as having “a spastic and often overbearing personality.”

"He just rubbed a lot of people, particularly with the farmers market, the wrong way," Pigg said.

Corbin said he got along well with most of the people involved with the project, but there were about five people with the farmers market who made trouble for him. They continually tried to undermine him and jockeyed for control over the pavilion project, he said.

“They have no capability to run a project like this,” he wrote in the email.

Graznak said in the time Corbin served as executive director, the organization brought in the most money it ever had. The organization’s 2010 tax return shows gifts to the organization rose from $11,143 in 2007 to $98,745 in 2008, $62,001 in 2009 and $34,143 in 2010.

During his two-year tenure with Sustainable Farms and Communities, Corbin received about $117,000 in total compensation, according to expense reports from Sustainable Farms and Communities’ accountant.

But the grants Corbin hoped for — including federal TARP funds — didn’t come through. By the end of 2010, Sustainable Farms and Communities couldn’t keep paying him, and he was out of a job.

"That's what the farmers don't understand," Pigg said. "It costs money to raise money."

A ‘wide variety’ of community purposes

Although there’s been talk about scrapping the original plan and building a pavilion with fewer frills, that decision isn’t only up to Sustainable Farms and Communities.

According to the lease agreement, the Columbia City Council has to review all development plans to make sure the permanent structure would match the other buildings near that property, namely, the city’s Activity and Recreation Center — a 73,000 square-foot facility that features a gym and an indoor pool and track.

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said an appropriate structure comes down to the quality of facility design and materials used.

The construction drawings of the proposed $2.5 million pavilion show a structure that’s high-quality, attractive and comparable with the other buildings near the grounds, Hood said. Renderings of the proposed pavilion are available in a slideshow online

The building would be used as a farmers market, but the facility also has to offer a space for a "wide variety" of community purposes, according to the lease. The city would get access to the pavilion up to 25 hours each month.

While the farmers market is “a tremendous asset to the community,” Hood said, it’s also a group of businesspeople using the site to make money. He said the city wants to ensure community use of the land because it’s public property. There have been proposals to add more athletics fields to the land, build an ice rink or develop indoor gyms, he said.

As May 2013 approaches, the lease gets closer to becoming null. Hood stressed that the farmers market will not get booted off the land, but he said the terms of the lease will need to be renegotiated.

“The city doesn't want to be locked into a 50-year commitment if there isn't a permanent structure involved,” he said.

The money

Sustainable Farms and Communities has about $11,100 in its capital construction fund, $6,800 of which was donated for costs related to building stalls at the pavilion, Nixon said. The remaining money could go toward any other aspect of the project — recently, Sustainable Farms and Communities put in a waterline at the market using money from that fund, she said.

One problem Pigg identified was whether people were aware they were donating to the fundraising costs or to the bricks-and-mortar aspect of the pavilion project.

At its peak, the organization had $265,000 in its capital construction fund, Nixon said, including a $50,000 pledge from the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. About $80,000 went toward drawings for the pavilion and other engineering services, Nixon said.

Several people who had made major pledges or donations to the pavilion said they didn’t know what was going on with the project and didn’t wish to comment further. The money from the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau is contingent upon the project breaking ground by May, Director Amy Schneider said.

Next steps

Pigg — an MU professor emeritus with a doctorate in development sociology who has worked as community leadership consultant — said Sustainable Farms and Communities directors had a meeting planned with representatives from the Parks and Recreation Department to speak about a new lease and fundraising. The directors also plan to build relationships with farmers and develop some alternative structures with them before going forward with the pavilion project.

Pigg said he's hesitant to hire someone to raise money. He's been told by several people with the market that unless he can persuade them it's the right choice, they won't help.

Mark Mahnken, president of the Columbia Farmers' Market, said the project was “dormant.” But he also said Pigg seemed to have a lot of experience in fundraising.

“I am real optimistic that with the reorganization that they're going to start that drive,” he said.

Pigg said he thinks building the $2.5 million pavilion would be the best choice in the long run and that he might be able to persuade the organization of that fact, too. Even so, he acknowledged it could be tough to raise that money in the current economy. 

"The community would be very proud to have that in their community," he said.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.