Updated Tue, Oct 29, 2013 4:12 pm
Athens City Council Chambers was filled to the brim on Monday evening with Athens Farmers Market board members, vendors and supporters who were asking for the city’s help in finding a permanent location for the infamous market.
The farmers market used to be located on the site that now houses the Athens Community Center on East State Street. The market moved to the parking lot of University Mall — now called The Market on State — in 1998 when construction of the community center began. The intention was for the farmers market to move back to the community center, but the site was too small for the flourishing market.
“We moved down to what is now known as The Market on State and frankly, we flourished as you can see. We had more space, more parking and more visibility, you widened the road and a lot of good things happened down there,” said Athens Farmers Market board member Ann Fugate.
According to Fugate, the farmers market now has over 100 vendors with a waiting list of more than 50 vendors. The market is held year-round with a portion of the market being held inside the mall during the winter months. Athens Farmers Market Manager Kip Parker said that about 25-30 vendors are housed inside the mall in the winter with another 15-20 vendors outside. He said there’s a waiting list to operate inside the market in the winter.
“But now we think it’s time to get serious,” Fugate said. “We need a place. A permanent place if we’re going to grow into the second half of our century. We know pretty well what our basic needs are.”
Fugate said that the “letter of the day” was "P" as the market is looking for a site that is permanent, paved with power, plumbing and potties. While the market does not currently have power or plumbing, she said by the time the market finds a permanent home, plumbing and electricity will be required by the state health department.
The city recently approved construction of a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in the parking lot of The Market on State, which will force the Athens Farmers Market to move its location within the mall parking lot. While this isn’t anticipated to reduce the size of the market, it will impact the amount of parking available in the lot.
According to a survey completed by the Ohio University Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs over the summer, the Athens Farmers Market has an average of 2,570 adult visitors to the market on Saturdays. The market operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
As change is coming to The Market on State, the Athens Farmers Market board is looking elsewhere to find a permanent location to expand in the next few years. On Monday, the board expressed those desires to Athens City Council.
Athens Farmers Market board member Maureen Burns-Hooker shared with Council the results of the Voinovich School survey. She said that it’s estimated that the market generates between $2.5-3 million in sales a year and keeps at least 257 people employed.
The farmers market also generated 43,247 pounds of food donations for the Community Food Initiatives Donation Station, which provides fresh food to area food pantries. There was also $41,000 in food stamp benefits redeemed at the market last year.
Burns-Hooker said that 40 percent of those surveyed by the Voinovich School said they shop at the market weekly.
Fugate said that the Athens Farmers Market has been named one of the top 10 farmers markets in the nation. Burns-Hooker attributed that to the wide range of products available at the market. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the market also offers cheese, teas, coffee, salsa and baked goods.
Dave Gustafson, president of Athens Local Professional Artists and Craftsmen Association, said his group is the stepchild of the farmers market as approximately 25 ALPACA members sell their art during the art market once a month alongside the farmers.
When asked how much space a permanent farmers market would need, Fugate said at least five acres. She said the space utilized in the mall parking lot is approximately that size and that the parking is essential to the vitality and growth of the market.
Fugate said that the mall’s owners never expected the farmers market to be at the site so long, and neither did the farmers market. She said the market grew too much to return to the community center site as was planned.
“We changed. (The owners of the mall) are coping with us and we’re coping with them and we’re getting along. So far things are OK,” she said.
Councilman Kent Butler commented, “For the vitality of the farmers market, the vitality of our community, it only makes sense to address this issue now and with some real urgency. I support that urgency because I think we’re blessed to have you here.”
Councilwoman Jennifer Cochran pointed out that such a site that would suit the needs for the farmers market may not exist in the city.
“We may be talking about something that does not currently exist. I think there’s a good likelihood that what we’re talking about is something that’s going to need to be created,” Cochran said.
Athens Farmers Market vendor and Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel said that the county would also be willing to look for possible sites for the market.
“We’re just trying to begin a conversation and saying that we’ve outgrown our space and can you help us? Can you help us keep this business growing?” Burns-Hooker asked Council.