Commissioners Ask Big Questions Ahead of Tuesday’s Farmers Market Endorsement Vote

Andrew Trzaska | April 8, 2013

Final discussions on the possible relocation of the Muskegon Farmers Market took place at Muskegon’s city commission work session Monday evening.

A group that includes the Downtown Muskegon Development Corporation, and the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce proposed the plan.  One private, unnamed donor has come forward to pay for a significant portion of the project’s costs, which will be entirely financed by donations, not city dollars.

[Read discussions from one community forum and a previous commission meeting]

No vote was taken Monday. Instead, an up/down vote of endorsement on the general proposal will be taken at this week’s full commission meeting on Tuesday. However, it will not be the final vote on the matter, as site plan reviews and other approval votes will happen in the process of the development.

The relocation group says the Tuesday endorsement vote is simply needed begin fundraising.  If approved Tuesday, the DMDC will work on moving the plan forward in cooperation of city staff. As part of this process, the market relocation group will start soliciting donations for the multimillion dollar plan.

A majority of the rest of Monday’s meeting consisted of questions and comments from the commission to the DMDC’s representatives, as well as community comments.  Read on to get an in-depth review of the topics discussed.

Steve Olsen, owner of Northern Machine Tool in Muskegon and member of the DMDC summarized the points he said were repeatedly brought up in a series of two community and two market vendor forums.

Olsen stated that parking, use of the existing Yuba site, the proposed indoor space and vendor space and utility access were repeatedly discussed.

Commissioner Willie German, Jr. asked Olsen if other redevelopment took off downtown, would the farmers market be pushed off of the Market Street parcel.

“We would not engage in a project like that unless we are 150% sure of its long-term success”, said Olsen. “25, 30 years from now, of course we can’t predict…the city will have to decide that.”

German questioned if the market move was intended as a quick fix to spur economic development that would eventually outlive its usefulness.

Vice Mayor Larry Spataro had several thoughts on the matter at Monday’s meeting. His ideas covered similar ground to commissioner German, and continued on to discuss commitment to the market’s vendors with design and other downtown plans.

According to Spataro, the previous two times the market has moved, it was “shoved off” of its existing spot because someone wanted the land, including the building of the Moses J. Jones Parkway. Spataro urged the DMDC to consider putting vendors first.

“We know the current site has a lot of liabilities. We don’t have money to renovate it, and we aren’t being offered money to renovate it. That’s not an option on the table,” said Spataro. “This doesn’t work if we don’t have the vendors at the table and they aren’t being listened to.”

“We need to set some parameters of what we will allow and what we won’t allow,” said Spataro, regarding conflicts between the proposed new Farmers Market and other events in the summer months.  “We have to say to the vendors that we are willing to commit to the ability of the market to function.”

Spataro also touched on parking, saying there needs to be a designated place for vendors to park vehicles off-site if they’d like that doesn’t conflict with prime customer parking.

Jackson Hill neighborhood resident Brian Clincy, who is opposed to the plan, urged the city to improve walking and biking routes to downtown if the market moved out of its current location on the Jackson Hill/Angel neighborhood border, so those previously close to the park could still access it.

Commissioner Lea Markowski questioned the ability for the market to grow in the future.

“Where is the room for expansion?” said Markowski.

President of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce Cindy Larsen answered by saying that more pop-up tents could be placed as a temporary answer, but then claimed the market would not outgrow its new site immediately.

“I think it will be a lot of years where [we need to expand] every single day.”

Markowski drew out questions about the flea market’s future, which spurred public comment as well.

“We won’t get out of maintaining the current site,” said Markowski. “We still have to address that issue.”

One vendor spoke at Monday’s meeting, expressing concern that vendors hadn’t had an up or down vote on the matter, and that the flea market would lose vitality if the market moved downtown or was split across two sites. Mayor Gawron indicated that city staff would make the determination on whether the flea market would move downtown or stay on Yuba Street.

Muskegon resident Morning Bear echoed those comments on the flea market.

“We have to make sure we maintain the flea market.”

Two commission members spoke in support of the matter without questions.

Commissioner Bryon Turnquist seemed to have only one sticking point: parking. He said he compared to other markets in the area recently, and suggested Muskegon’s parking levels would not be worse than some markets, including Grand Haven. Confirming that led him to support the matter:

“Unfortunately, our market is getting tired. We’ve been told we don’t have any money to put into the current market,” said Turnquist. “I think a new presentation will bring new business into the market… I’ve really turned around on it. I think we can work on this.”

Commissioner Gawron asked no questions, but wrapped the discussion by explaining his support for the matter.

“We’ve heard the presentation of the economic benefits… and I don’t doubt that.” Said Gawron. “But my main focus 10 years ago, and is the same now. The city needs a top-notch facility for the vendors. That was my position 10 years ago, and it is the same now.”

Gawron answered claims that the new market plan is a “Cadillac” plan that would not be for all customers and vendors.  Gawron challenged the public in his comments to think of it as an opportunity to come together around something of high value and high quality:

“I think we can go a heck of a long way of taking that Cadillac and showcasing it, eventually bringing in new customers and vendors. All this time of interacting with the farmers, it has to be a highlight of the week… it truly becomes a family affair.”

Other commissioners were uneasy with Monday’s vote, including German and Markowski. German suggested the vote of support may be “premature”, and asked for even two more weeks.

“My main focus is accountability,” said German. “I would like to see the organization come back in front of us with something pretty much finalized.”

Gawron emphasized that the market would go through all the same steps as any other development, including a site plan.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst