10/21/2009: "Ag Guild Reponds To Guest Column"
Lynn Danaher’s recent Guest Column in The Island Guardian rightly points out that we should support our local farmers’ market, but expresses opposition to the proposed Nichols Street market facility.
As a board member for the San Juan Islands Agricultural Guild, I want to respond to some of the concerns expressed in Lynn’s column. By way of background, I am an “at large” board member for the Agricultural Guild, meaning that I am neither a farmer nor a formal representative for one of several island, county, and regional organizations represented on the Ag Guild board. I attempt to represent the interests of island residents and more specifically, the customers of local farmers.
First, I would like to address the issue of site selection in general. Last year, we completed a feasibility study of potential locations for a Permanent Farmer’s Market facility, which listed requirements and considered 9 properties total, with detailed analysis of the top 3 properties. These top choices were 150 Nichols Street, 330 Spring Street, and the SJ County Fairgrounds. Of these choices, 150 Nichols Street met more of the criteria than the alternatives, and was identified as the first target for the Ag Guild to pursue as a home for the Permanent Farmer’s Market. The feasibility study was made public (with an executive summary) on the Ag Guild’s website (http://www.sjiagguild.com), and hard copies were distributed widely to each of the organizations involved including the Town and County.
The fairgrounds were strongly considered as a location for the Permanent Farmer’s Market. Speaking for myself as a board member, there was intense discussion at board meetings (for which we try to make notes available on our website on a timely basis) concerning site selection, and I do not believe that the fairgrounds were dismissed as a possibility without strong consideration. Current zoning restrictions at the Fairgrounds are being addressed that would potentially allow for farmers markets and/or other markets to take place at the Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds Director has indicated that new facilities may not be able to be constructed given the amount of impervious surface allowed. Thus, the potential use of Fairgrounds facilities would not necessarily include dedicated facilities for farmers markets or other markets on specific days of each week. Furthermore, while the cost of development would be significantly less (given the fact that the property is already publically owned), the operating budget may not be sustainable.
The Ag Guild board has to weigh the importance of a downtown location heavily in our site selection criteria, for several reasons. First, both farm vendors and craft vendors repeatedly express a strong preference for a downtown location to maximize customer traffic. Whatever kind of business each of us is involved in, surely we can understand that the old maxim, “location, location, location” applies to farmers’ markets and arts & crafts markets as well as any other retail business. Second, customers reliably express a preference for a downtown location, convenient to the other businesses they patronize. And customers of the farmers’ market are everyone else’s customers. Remember �" a downtown location maximizes the chances that a farmer’s market customer will then walk next door and patronize other local businesses. This represents a win-win situation for local businesses. Third, a downtown location maximizes the tourist appeal and traffic to the farmer’s market. Farmers’ markets around the state are well-documented draws for visitors, and the Ag Guild is confident that the Nichols Street market facility will follow the trends seen in Bellingham and Olympia and elsewhere, helping to boost local economic activity across the board.
Finally, the Town’s own Economic Development element of the Comprehensive Plan states “The Town should support the establishment of a permanent farmers market in Friday Harbor.” This is the source of the Town’s support for a downtown location, and the Ag Guild considers the Town a vital long-term partner for creating a healthy farmer’s market, as local municipalities have been in Olympia, Bellingham, Seattle, Puyallup, Federal Way, and elsewhere in our state.
In short, the Ag Guild board is following the expressed preference of a wide segment of our community in working hard to develop a downtown location. Downtown, only two sites meet the bulk of our criteria, and we must all realize that no site will be perfect and meet all of our desires and requirements. 330 Spring Street would be a terrific location for a market as well, and as many have observed, has potential for parking. But the property is much bigger than even our optimistic hopes for small farming in the islands, and is much more expensive than a small non-profit, even with public-private partnership, can afford.
150 Nichols Street, in short, meets almost all of the criteria originally outlined for a Permanent Farmer’s Market facility, and is appropriately sized and priced for the project. The Land Bank’s participation as a historic preservation project will save and preserve the last historic industrial building in downtown Friday Harbor for future generations, and the Ag Guild is committed (and working on) raising matching funds from private donors and sources of grant funding for the renovation and operation of the facility.
Finally, I want to address the issue of parking, since it is a subject of great concern. We should separate two issues: parking for vendors, and parking for customers. The first is critical for the Ag Guild to address as part of the planning process for the project. Market vendors will be required to park outside the downtown core and not use on-street parking marked with anything under 8-hour time limits, or park in residential areas adjacent to the market. This is critical to ensure that the Ag Guild and our market vendors are “good neighbors” to local businesses and residents.
The second issue �" parking for customers �" is one that all businesses in Friday Harbor face, and it is one that none of us can solve alone. Customers will use whatever legal parking spots they find available. In doing so, they will walk past, and often patronize, other businesses on their way to and from the Permanent Farmer’s Market facility. This is a positive benefit, not a downside, to locating the market downtown. But in the long term, we all recognize that the Town, downtown businesses, and residents will need to address the need for additional parking, and the Ag Guild stands ready to be a strong partner when an appropriate plan and location is identified, since it will benefit everyone.
In closing, I simply wanted to give a perspective as a non-farmer board member from the Ag Guild on the current plan to acquire and renovate 150 Nichols Street. As with any project, we are working to build the best facility possible but there are always areas where our plans can be improved, and we welcome the feedback we’re getting from Ms. Danaher and other correspondents.
Ag Guild board members are happy to discuss the project and plans with all interested parties. We did so this summer by staffing a booth at the current farmer’s market location, and we answered many questions and listened to customer’s concerns and desires for the market. Now that the market occurs less frequently, we encourage those who wish to ask questions to visit our website, contact board members, and come to public meetings. Building a Permanent Farmer’s Market that we can be proud of, and that will stimulate economic activity and growth will take more than the efforts of a non-profit, even with Town and Land Bank support. It will take the support of customers, farmers, local businesspeople, and the community as a whole.
Thank you for the opportunity to share some of the details that have led the Ag Guild to the current plan for 150 Nichols Street.