As it winds down, this season has been unlike any other in the 23 years since the Columbia Farmers Market opened shop in an open-air pole barn on the old fairgrounds at Ash Street and Clinkscales Road.
In the spring, disagreement over the size, cost and management of a project to build a permanent market prompted numerous growers, some of whom have been with the market since its inception, to set up shop at a separate market in a parking lot on Business Loop 70. The number of vendors at the new Boone County Farmers Market rivaled or surpassed those at the Columbia Farmers Market. Both sites are filled with individual tents.
The split is hindering plans by the Columbia Farmers Market to build a $2.7 million facility next to the city’s new Activity and Recreation Center, which is located on the same site as the old fairground.
Steven Sapp of Strawberry Hills Farms, an original member of the Columbia Farmers Market, was among the growers who decided to relocate to the Boone County Farmers Market. “We tried to stick with it and work it out until this April, when it became apparent that there would be no changing of the plans,” Sapp said.
Dan Keubler, a grower who’s helping to spearhead the Columbia Farmers Market project, said the plan was designed to be flexible. “Since many growers have left, right now we are looking at a phase one that is a little smaller than what we had initially,” Keubler said. “But we still have to sit down and work out the details.”
The original plan calls for vendor stalls, an amphitheater, bakery, garden, cafe, gift shop and meeting rooms to be built in three phases. The first phase is expected to include a covered entry way, 18 covered stalls, 62 uncovered stalls, concession stands and restrooms, and carries an estimated cost of more than $1.6 million.
It’s been nearly a year and a half since the Columbia City Council approved a 30-year lease to Sustainable Farms and Communities, an affiliate of the Columbia Farmers Market, to build and operate the permanent market on the city-owned land. But little progress has been made to raise money for the project.
Guy Clark, president of the Columbia Farmers Market, said the slow economy affected fund raising. Compounding the issue, “controversy with farmers in the market was reason to cool our jets,” he said.
“We are trying to work out what we can with the farmers that left. Some of them may come back, and some may never come back,” Clark said.
“Our customers want this project to come together because they are tired of going to both markets,” Clark said. “ We are trying to work out what we can with the farmers that left. Some of them may come back, and some may never come back.”
As a prelude to a major fund-raising campaign, Sustainable Farms and Communities is considering whether to hire a consultant to find out how interested people are in helping with the project.
“We are going to have to find some foundations that believe in community development and agriculture — foundations that are in line with our mission,” Keubler said.
The clock is ticking. The lease between the group and the city requires that construction of a permanent market begins within 36 months — by April 1, 2005 — or the city will regain the property. In addition, the project must be finished by April 2007 or the lease will be terminated.
Sustainable Farms and Communities was formed in 1998 as a not-for-profit organization to raise money, design and manage the proposed market. Because the Columbia Farmers Market facility would be built on city-owned land, it has been mandated in the lease that the city have two representatives on the Sustainable Farms and Communities board along with three members of the market and two residents.
The role of Sustainable Farms and Communities and its board contributed to the breakup of the original market. If the permanent facility comes to fruitition, the group would govern the rules and regulations of the market — a prospect that made some growers worry about losing control.
Questions were also raised about how a permanent facility might affect the cost for vendors. The annual fee this year was $125, and Sustainable Farms and Communities expects these figures to go up in in the future to help fund the building project. The rent for use of city land, for example, would increase from $2,100 to $4,520 a year once the first phase of the project is completed.
A permanent market would also involve annual operating costs for insurance and other costs such as electricity and water. “The problem is that even if they raise all of this money, it is still going to cost around $60,000 a year to run it, so they are going to have to keep raising that,” Sapp said.
Diane and Richard Cormack, who sell buffalo and elk meat at both markets, say they feel a permanent structure will benefit their customers. Diane Cormack is enthusiastic about plans for a pavilion that would “still have an open market feel” but can keep customers out of the weather.
The Cormacks reported that sales were good at both markets this year, but they’ve heard from shoppers and growers who believe it would be best for the two factions to work out their differences.
Betty Wilson, who has shopped at the Columbia Farmers Market since it began in 1980, questions the need for “an elaborate structure.” But she’s more disappointed with the split. “I think they need each other,” she said.