Thursday, June 4, 2009

An accurate record of the Queen Anne market's evolution and challenges.

Q. The Seattle Farmers Market Association will not be managing the Queen Anne Farmers Market in 2009 – is that right?

A. Yes, we understand that the Queen Anne Farmers Market Association ( ) will host and manage the market in 2009. Unfortunately, we had to step away because we don’t agree with the direction in which QAFMA is taking the market. The breakdown between us occurred because QAFMA has one idea of where it wants the market to be, while we have to look at where the market needs to be. It’s an important difference. We’re very concerned about the market’s sustainability, day-to-day operational efficiency and affordability, and most importantly, how well the market serves the farmers who make it all happen. The location that QAFMA has proposed for the market – West Crockett Street between Queen Anne Avenue North and First Avenue West – has real issues that the folks at QAFMA may not fully appreciate, and that we think are going to be big problems in the long run.

Q. Before we discuss SFMA’s vision for the market and why SFMA is stepping away this year, we should probably cover some background, starting with how the market came to be.

A. QAFMA invited us to establish a market on Queen Anne in late 2006. We were the only ones who could organize it within six months. QAFMA offered volunteer help, and also raised money for the market (according to QAFMA, about $7,000) from donors within the community. Those funds were supplemented by a $15,000 grant from the City of Seattle. With the help of volunteers, we enlisted the support of neighboring stakeholders and the Queen Anne Community Council. We obtained permits for McClure Middle School and the Queen Anne Community Center grounds. The grant money was budgeted toward start-up expenses – including advertising, rent, arterial signs, permits, design fees, extra staffing, insurance, usage fees, and a few durable items like tents and tables. QAFMA also paid $400 for music in 2008. In total, $13,445 was spent to get the market up and running, and to operate it in 2007 and 2008. The balance of the $22,000 that we understand QAFMA raised for the market – around $8,500 – remained with QAFMA and was not disbursed to us. QAFMA also kept durables like tents and tables that were purchased using QAFMA funds.

Q. Was the market successful?

A. Definitely. We had a good start, but we needed to keep building. Creating and nurturing a farmers market takes a lot of time and energy, the primary goals of which should be to build sustainability and a diversity of offerings. Having an established trust-relationship with the farmers we brought with us gave us the jump start we needed to make a good showing right from day one. We had over 30 vendors at the peak of the first season, which made for a promising little market. The community responded in a big way, and the market seemed poised for growth.
In 2008 more vendors signed on, and we peaked at 43 and had to put some vendors on a wait list. But over the course of the season, community attendance began to flag even though some individual vendors’ sales increased. For the year, attendance declined by 29%. Vendors were discouraged, and some pulled out. Thursdays turned out to be a problem for a lot of family schedules. Patrons told us they wanted more diverse offerings. The Ballard and University District markets had everything people wanted, and after the novelty wore off the Thursday Queen Anne market began to lose out to more comprehensive shopping opportunities elsewhere. Still, 2008 wasn’t a bad year. Vendor revenues increased by 19% relative to 2007, although this was due to price hikes and having more vendors involved, not higher per-vendor sales volume.

Q. Will the McClure Middle School site be available in 2009?

A. No, due to construction at the school. We became aware of that in 2008, and so we knew we’d have to find another site for the market in 2009.

Q. What other possible market locations did you identify?

A. The play field at Coe Elementary School, 2424 7th Avenue West, and also the West Crockett Street site. We had surveyed West Crocket back in 2006 as a potential location for a farmers market, but at that time we identified some significant problems with the site that made it unsuitable for a vigorous and diverse market.

Q. What problems did you identify early on with the West Crockett Street site?

A. Primarily space issues. West Crockett Street is less than 25 feet across. The block between Queen Anne Avenue North and First Avenue West is also only about 250 feet long, but part of the north side of the street may not be available for a market because there are two houses on that side between the alley and First West. There are also trees, signs and poles in the parking strips and on the sidewalks along the sides of the street. The vendor canopies are 10 x 10 feet square. The City of Seattle Fire Marshal requires a lane at least 20 feet wide down the center of the street to allow for fire truck access. This means that booths can only be placed along the street if they straddle the curbs and mostly occupy the parking strips, which is awkward for vendor displays. In our first draft of the West Crockett plan back in 2007, we showed 28 spaces in the street. Unfortunately, roots in the parking strip resulted in as many as six of those spaces being too uneven, leaving us with only 22 usable spaces – eight fewer than we had at McClure in our first season.

Q. Did you tell QAFMA about your concerns early on?

A. Yes. I visited the West Crockett Street site with George and Anne Counts on January 2, 2007. I gave them a great deal of perspective about the site at that time. The next day, Anne Counts emailed other members of QAFMA with the details of what I had said about the problems with the site. The concerns described in that email were the main reason why we decided to use the McClure parking lot during the the summer and deal with the disruption of moving to the Queen Anne Community Center in the fall.

Q. Were you willing to consider the West Crockett Street site anyway in 2008?

A. Yes, primarily because of a conversation I had in March 2007 with Joe Geivett of PacLand, the developer of the properties on the north and south sides of Crockett at Queen Anne Avenue North (Sweetbrier and Eden Hill). Joe is a big market supporter, and he thought it might be possible to create a “village square” event space between the two new buildings, which are about 70 feet apart. He envisioned movable street furniture and planters that could have allowed us to host as many as 36 market booths in the resulting 7,000-square-foot space. He also shared a plan to acquire the residential properties all the way to First West, which might have prompted the Fire Marshal to relax the emergency lane width from 20 feet to 14 feet and given us another 25 spaces or so at the west end of the street. We thought we might be able to secure parking for market vendors and patrons at the McClure Middle School lot on Saturdays. On top of this, Joe pledged to incorporate public restrooms and storage for the market into his new buildings. So we were looking at a dream location in the heart of Queen Anne, and a market site with as many as 60 spaces. Everyone was ecstatic.

Q. What happened to the vision of a “village square” at West Crockett and Queen Anne North?

A. By the summer of 2008 we came to understand that what we had hoped for wasn’t going to materialize. It became clear in conversations with Joe Geivett that despite his best efforts (for which we remain very grateful), his proposed “village square” wouldn’t happen. The developer’s arborist wanted trees, and commercial tenants of the new buildings wanted outdoor patio seating. The City of Seattle wanted light poles in specific locations and required certain landscaping. The number of vendors that would be able to fit into the space between the new buildings dropped from 36 to 16. The fire lane remained at 20 feet, and Joe’s plan to acquire the two houses at the west end of West Crockett went by the board, reducing the total number of vendor spaces between Queen Anne North and First West to around 26. In addition, McClure announced its construction plans and advised us that we wouldn’t be able to reliably use its parking lot.
In early 2009 Seattle Parks and Recreation offered the use of the parking lot on the south side of West Crockett between the alley and First West. This is the lot that services the Queen Anne Pool. The lot is big enough to accommodate up to 15 market vendor booths. But even with this space, we didn’t think West Crockett was feasible.

Q. Why don’t you think the West Crockett Street site is feasible even with the pool parking lot added to the mix?

A. As I mentioned earlier, one significant problem is that many of the booths along West Crockett will have to straddle the curb, which is very awkward for vendors. The pool parking lot looks good on paper, but it poses its own unique set of difficulties. It’s an archipelago, and in our 18 years of running four other markets we’ve learned that when customers have to deviate from a straight-line pattern like a street into a cul-de-sac, niche space or side lot, the vendors in that lot get far less traffic than the vendors along the street. Seasoned vendors know this and won’t be happy there. For them it’s all about supporting their sales, and as market operators that’s our number one mission too – and, I should add, one of the cornerstones of a successful, sustainable market. So the pool parking lot is not as attractive as it looks.
But the main problem with West Crockett – even including the pool lot – is that we don’t believe it will accommodate enough vendor booths to make a farmers market viable without substantial ongoing subsidization from the Queen Anne community. Here’s what the fiscal picture looks like:
The Seattle Department of Transportation requires a daily permit for use of West Crockett that costs around $176 per day. The permit mandates two full-time traffic monitors during all market hours. We pay our monitors about $100 a day, meaning that $200 a day would have to be budgeted for necessary traffic monitoring.
The permit required for use of the pool parking lot mandates that three more parking and traffic monitors be present during market hours to direct drivers going to the pool on Saturdays to the Eden Hill underground parking garage at Queen Anne North and West Crockett. These monitors would cost an additional $300 per market day. Add to this a City Department of Planning and Development retail change of use permit ($30 per day), and daily rent of about $75 for use of the parking lot, payable to Seattle Parks and Recreation. Then add a fee for storage and restroom use of $120 a day.
In addition, the Seattle Fire Marshal now assess a “Public Safety Assembly Permit” fee of $1,702 to all Farmers Markets (including the Queen Anne Farmers Market) with attendance of more than 20,000 per season. This would bring costs up to over $1,000 per day, or more than $15,000 for a 15-week market season – and that’s before adding in payments to market staff, fees for garbage collection and disposal, insurance costs, special market association fees, and all the other regular costs of operating a farmers market.
Farmers markets don’t generate a lot of money, and these numbers simply overwhelm our budget model. By comparison, lots used by other small weekday markets are typically free and have only a tiny fraction of these costs, which is why they can survive with 30-35 vendors.
By contrast, a market at Coe would be larger and more diverse, but would cost about $10,000 a year less to operate. Given the slim profit margins at which even the best-run farmers markets operate, this is a very big difference.

Q. Could you use volunteers to help defray costs?

A. Using unpaid volunteers sounds like an attractive solution, but it’s not. First, organizing five or more volunteers to work eight-hour shifts every Saturday, all summer and fall, would be a real challenge. Second, keep in mind that these positions are not ones we can do without, and in our experience it’s not unusual for even well-intentioned volunteers to be no-shows from time to time. Third, having untrained volunteers deal with moving cars and pedestrian safety is a professionally-unsound liability and is not an option for us – particularly since the area will likely be very congested, and guiding vehicles around the market and into the Eden Hill garage (which will only be accessible from West Howe Street via a narrow alley) will be complex and challenging. (This points up another potential problem with the West Crockett site, by the way – the possibility of congestion around the market, particularly along Queen Anne Avenue North.) Finally, on a more philosophical level, we think markets like the Queen Anne Farmers Market can and should be self-sustaining without the need for significant ongoing financial or volunteer contributions from the community.

Q. What did you do when you realized that the West Crockett idea was not going to work?

A. The realization was a process. As 2008 progressed, we grew concerned when it became apparent that the spaces we had hoped to use near the entrances to the Sweetbrier and Eden Hill buildings were not going to be there. We expressed our concerns and requested a face-to-face meeting with QAFMA as early as September 2008, only to encounter resistance to the idea of shifting the market to another location. We kept trying to explain our position to QAFMA, and from November 2008 through January 2009 we were in constant contact with Scott Smith of Queen Anne Neighbors for Responsible Growth, QAFMA’s parent organization, whom QAFMA has asked to serve as a liaison between us and QAFMA. We met with Scott during the first week of January 2009.
We also began to look harder at the Coe Elementary School play field, which is very attractive because it offers a terrific layout and is affordable, spacious, convenient and kid safe. In our view, based on years of experience, it’s by far the best option for a successful farmers market on Queen Anne – now and into the future. Fortunately, Coe’s Principal, David Elliott, was initially open and receptive to the idea of having the market at Coe if he had the support of the PTA and the community at large.
At the same time that we were trying to explain to QAFMA our position regarding the West Crockett site, we began to lobby hard for Coe as a back-up in case West Crockett didn’t work out. We explained to QAFMA and QANRG (through Scott) how markets work and why we believed it was imperative to move the Queen Anne Farmers Market to Coe in 2009. We maintained that there was no benefit to remaining small and no benefit to holding the market on a weekday, and that the market had to be self-sustaining based on vendor income sales, because public support, donations and grants would eventually run out. We stressed that Crocket would be a giant step backward and an unnecessary hardship, whereas moving the market to Coe could easily catapult it forward.

Q. Were you successful in your efforts to lobby for the Coe site?

A. Ultimately, no – mostly because QAFMA never got on board. Rather than working with us to help build a sustainable market on Queen Anne, QAFMA continued to advocate for a market at West Crockett Street that we didn’t feel was viable. To try to bolster its position, in January 2009 QAFMA put up a poll online requesting input from the community about the competing market options. The poll asked where the market should be, which location (Coe or West Crockett) best met the needs of the community, and where folks would be most likely to shop.
The obvious problem with the poll was that it didn’t provide the background information that stakeholders needed to make a knowledgeable decision about which market location would be better for Queen Anne. For example, the proposed markets at Coe and West Crockett were not described in terms of their respective sizes (even though almost 78% of respondents indicated a preference for a market of at least 40 stalls, which is about the maximum number that could be set up at West Crockett), or in terms of their relative diversity (a market at Coe would be much more varied than a market at Crockett). The poll also didn’t mention that while a market at Coe would likely be self-sustaining without the need for substantial ongoing financial and volunteer contributions from the community, a market at West Crockett probably would not survive without such contributions (which QAFMA is currently soliciting). Look, all else being equal – which was the fundamental assumption behind QAFMA’s poll – the West Crockett location would be a better spot for a farmers market. But as we’ve explained many times, all else is not equal.
Anyway, after QAFMA released the results of its poll, we met on January 8, 2009 with Principal Elliott, who said he wanted to survey the PTA to gauge support for holding a farmers market at Coe. We didn’t hear back from him until February 2009. At that time he told us that although positive responses to a market at Coe outweighed negative responses, some folks had argued strongly against the Coe proposal. He said he might be open to hosting a market in 2010, but that given QAFMA’s opposition to the Coe site and strong concerns voiced by a few constituents, Coe would not be available in 2009.

Q. What finally led to you stepping away from managing the market at the West Crockett site?”

A. In early January 2009 we presented our position to the Queen Anne Community Council at its regular meeting. We explained the problems with the West Crockett site, and asked for a letter supporting a move to Coe if we couldn’t resolve those problems. We received a letter of support from the Council dated February 4, 2009.
By January it had become apparent that QAFMA was not hearing our concerns about holding a farmers market at West Crockett. Under our operating agreement with QAFMA, our involvement with the market was to be “ongoing for as long as a farmers’ market proves viable on Queen Anne.” We didn’t think a market at West Crockett was viable, and we had made that clear to QAFMA on numerous occasions. Since QAFMA was committed to that location, we felt we had no choice but to inform QANRG on January 7, 2009 that we would be canceling our contract with QAFMA.
Even after that, though, we kept talking in an effort to work something out. On January 22 we met with Joe Geivett’s assistant and representatives of QAFMA, QANRG, the Office of the Fire Marshal, the Office of Economic Development, and Parks and Recreation to try to reach consensus on a suitable location for the market. The Parks and Recreation representative agreed to consider making the Queen Anne Pool parking lot available for the market, but since QAFMA hadn’t requested use of the lot until that morning, she had to take the request back to her office for consideration. So once again we were put off, despite our continued reminders that we had to get a letter and application forms out to the farmers who would be participating in the market. In addition, the Fire Marshal announced implementation of the new $1,702 seasonal assembly permit fee. This was the first time that we or any of the other departments’ staffs had heard of such a permit requirement. In February, Parks and Recreation informed us that they would issue a permit for the parking lot, but with conditions that would have been prohibitively expensive for us and would have presented a logistical nightmare. Ultimately, we weren’t able to agree to this as a practicable solution.

Q. So did you quit?

A. No, we were effectively sidelined. We never quit. We bowed out of the season as graciously as possible because we felt we were out of immediate workable options, and because the opportunity to recruit a market for this season had been missed as we had warned. Clearly this community can accomplish anything it can agree on. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for us to commit to managing a farmers market at West Crockett, for reasons which hopefully people can better understand now. We can’t take on the operational complexity, the costs, or the limited future that the West Crockett plan offers. We predict that the market will move to Coe sometime in the future. It’s the only space that offers an opportunity for a robust and self-sufficient market on the hill. If the Coe play field ever becomes available, we’ll gladly reconsider our decision to step away from managing the market. In the meantime, we’ll return to running Fremont, Ballard and the other neighborhood markets that we operate.

Q. Any final thoughts? Folks you want to thank?

A. Absolutely. Heartfelt thanks to all our wonderful and amazing volunteers, who poured themselves into this project and inspired us in the first place, and to all the friends of the market who donated generously for the matching grant and more. Special thanks to everyone who supported the market and the farmers with their patronage every week, and to the neighbors in the area who gave us the benefit of the doubt when we got started.

Thanks to McClure Middle School and its Principal Sarah Pritchett, and to the folks at the Queen Anne Community Center for hosting us and sharing their space for two seasons. We want to recognize the Queen Anne Community Council for their unwavering support. Thanks to the amazing Joe Geivett, who always tries to be helpful every way he can, and to the people at Parks and Recreation, the Office of Economic Development, SDOT, and the Office of the Fire Marshal for working overtime to help solve problems. Thanks to QANRG, and in particular to Scott Smith, who stepped up to try to bring things together. Thanks to our sponsor group at QAFMA, past and present, who really, really tried to make things work out, even though ultimately we had different visions of how to achieve a common goal. Finally, thanks to Principal David Elliott at Coe Elementary School for his enthusiasm and helpfulness. Queen Anne is a wonderful community with great people. We’re proud to live here.


Jon Hegeman
President of Seattle Farmers Market Association