The Oakland Grand Lake Farmers Market near Lake Merritt has been a community fixture going back to 1997. The main criticisms that has been leveled over the years have been with the Marin-county-based AIM (Agricultural Institute of Marin) organization that serves as the management company over the Saturday event.
I recall that some were concerned that the Farmers Market would take people away from the local retailers. Then, Whole Foods Opened, and some wondered if it would take people away from the Grand Lake Farmers Market:
But several issues have remained: the problem of the market taking parking space away from retailer customers (and in particular The Grand Lake Theater), the way the market’s use leaves the Splash Pad Park after it’s over each Saturday, and the idea that Agricultural Institute of Marin takes $1 million away from Oakland, and to Marin County, leaving nothing in return. Now, there’s a push to have a new competition for a management company to run the Grand Lake Farmers Market. And with that, former Oakland District Two Councilmember Pat Kernighan (now “happily retired”) came out swinging in this long letter to Oaklanders, throwing Agricultural Institute of Marin under the bus in the process:
Hello neighbors, this is Pat Kernighan, former City Councilperson for District 2, now happily retired. I have been reading the debate about the Grandlake Farmers Market with dismay, as I’m seeing accusations and statements that are not true. I am also seeing an over-simplification about what would make for the best future of the Farmers Market. It is not simply a question of keeping or changing the current market management. It is more about deciding what operational standards we want as a community for the market.
For starters, let me clear up a couple of incorrect statements that appear in the Save Our Market flyer that is being distributed:
1. No one in the community that I know of, or in City government, is proposing that the Grandlake market be shut down or that the current management company, AIM (Agricultural Institute of Marin), be barred from managing the market.
2. No one is advocating that the craft vendors or prepared food vendors be eliminated from the market.
What IS being proposed by a group of community members, (who have spent years volunteering on behalf of the market and the park), is that the City should set operational guidelines for any market manager about things like protecting the park surfaces (especially the grass) by laying plywood under the booths and a tarp under the greasy popcorn machine, that pedestrian aisles for shopping be a minimum width to eliminate congestion, that rules for truck parking be made so that a reasonable amount of parking is left for customers of the market, that there be established a maximum footprint for the market, and that the market management pay the city a reasonable fee that would go for repair of wear and tear on the park. Those are the issues that should be the subject of a community discussion, in my opinion.
Finally, the group is also asking that the City issue an open and competitive Request for Proposals for management of the Grandlake farmers market, with these types of guidelines included. Currently the market is operated by the Agricultural Institute of Marin, known as AIM. I believe the RFP idea is what set off the controversy and motivated AIM to rally the troops in support of its continued management. By the way, if such an RFP was issued by the City, AIM could certainly compete along with any other proposers (among whom would likely be the entities that manage the other East Bay farmers markets).
I spent many years interacting with AIM and with the community members who have volunteered for years on the Farmers Market Advisory Committee and who have suggested doing the RFP. I have some observations. But first, a bit of history to explain how we got to this point.
When the farmers market started operating in the newly constructed Splash Pad park in 2004, the market was about a third the size it is now.
As it grew in popularity and size, so did the attendant problems like traffic congestion, trash left behind, lack of parking in the general neighborhood on Saturdays, and damage to the park. Several businesses on Grand and Lakeshore complained that the market was taking all the parking on Saturdays and siphoning off customers of restaurants. In response, I appointed a Farmers Market community advisory board (in about 2006?) to help sort out the difficulties and help the market be an asset to the community. The concerns of the neighborhood businesses were sorted out fairly early, and then the focus of the committee was on parking, traffic, and minimizing damage to the park.
I and some of the folks from the advisory board attempted to work with AIM to get them to help mitigate the negative impacts of the market. It was a frustrating process, to put it mildly. The executive management of AIM wouldn’t commit to meeting dates for months at a time; when they did come to a meeting, they sent people without decision-making authority; they refused to provide any financial information about their non-profit or what their income from the Grandlake market was. They only irregularly and grudgingly complied with requests to put down tarps or plywood under the booths that are set up on the grass. This pattern went on for years.
The key bone of contention in our discussions was whether AIM would contribute financially to repairing damage to the park on which they operate. They contributed no money to the City for that or any other purpose during the years 2004 to 2013. Though AIM refused to share any financial information with City staff until 2014, we knew from talking with the market vendors that AIM was grossing an estimated $20,000/month — $240,000/year — from the fees it charged to the vendors at the Grandlake market. I estimate their expenses for the GL market were no more than $100,000/year for salary for a market manager and insurance. I am happy to have AIM correct me on that figure, but I think it’s in the ballpark.
So the bottom line is that over a period of nine years, AIM made a net income from the Grandlake market well in excess of $1 million, and they contributed none of it back the community who had generated all that income for them. I found their attitude toward their host community to be appalling.
If not for the advocacy of Ken Katz and Jerry Barclay of the Farmers Market Advisory Committee, I doubt that we would have ever seen any financial sharing with the City. But due to the continued advocacy of these two volunteers, AIM finally spent $35,000 for a contractor to restore the decomposed granite paths, and in 2014 or 2015 agreed to pay $1,000/month toward a fund for future repair needs of the park on which they operate.
During the years of fruitless negotiations, (pun unintended, but kinda funny), AIM’s consistent story to us was that their mission is to support the viability of small farms and to educate the public about healthy food; therefore they needed every bit of income for that purpose. They were also in the process of raising several million dollars to build a permanent, 7-day-a-week farmers market building in the Marin Civic Center that would provide a consistent place for Marin farmers to sell their produce. We agreed those were valuable pursuits, but argued that surely they could return some portion of their Grandlake profits to help repair the damage to the Oakland park they operated in. It wasn’t until 2014, when Jerry and Ken proposed that the City do an RFP to open up the market management, that AIM suddenly became more cooperative with the City.
For fairness and context, I will note that the City’s policies with regard to use of City property is inconsistent depending on the type of use. Other farmers markets in Oakland do not pay a fee, but they all operate on an asphalt parking lot or city street, thus the potential for damage to the venue is negligible. In contrast to farmers markets, the City charges any other non-profit which uses a City park to put on an event over $1,000/DAY in fees. This includes events like free performances for children and fairs promoting local minority businesses, i.e., events for the public benefit that do not charge attendees or make any profit. So what is fair to charge the operator of the Grandlake Farmers Market? I would say somewhere in between those extremes.
But the management issue isn’t just about money, it is also about whether the market is being managed in a way that the majority of neighbors can enjoy. Those issues need discussion by the community regardless of whether it is AIM or some other entity managing. — For instance, should some of the farmers’ trucks be required to park at Lakeview school so there is more customer parking under the freeway? How wide should the pedestrian aisles be to allow comfortable movement within the market? How dense with booths should the market be? Some folks like it as is, but I’ve heard from many people that they find it too crowded and go to other farmers markets instead. These questions, in my opinion, would be a useful subject of debate.
Wrapping this up:
Whether the City opens up the market management function to competition with a Request for Proposals or whether they stick with AIM, I believe it is essential that the City establish written operational standards for the market management that will provide adequate aisle space for customers within the market, protect the park infrastructure from unnecessary damage, contribute to capital repair costs, and manage parking and traffic impacts.
If community members are inclined to contact City officials about the Grandlake Farmers Market, these are the issues I encourage them to address. AIM could certainly meet these standards, but they are unlikely to do so unless required to do it by a written contract.