Greensboro council votes to let nonprofit manage farmers market

by Jordan Green

Jace Ralls, a longtime customer, told council last week that the farmers market is a profitable enterprise that should remain under city management. (photo by Jordan Green)

Greensboro City Council narrowly voted on Monday to negotiate a contract with a nonprofit set up by a group of customers and vendors to manage the farmers curb market, disappointing a group of large-scale Guilford County farmers and their supporters.

The vote came a week after City Manager Rashad Young proposed to transfer management from the parks and recreation department to the coliseum staff to avoid antagonizing one of two factions with separate visions for the market and deep-seated mutual distrust.

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, atlarge Councilman Robbie Perkins, at-large Councilman Danny Thompson, District 2 Councilman Jim Kee and District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny voted on the prevailing side to hand management of the market over to Greensboro Farmers Market Inc.

Staff reported that both a review committee appointed by council members and the parks and recreation commission recommended the group.

Perkins dismissed a proposal by the Farmers Community Collaborative, the other proposer treated as a viable contender, as “narrowly focused,” and said he considered the proposal to turn management over to the coliseum to be the third best option.

“I’m willing to take a risk of giving it to a group that is well organized, open in willingness to include others,” Perkins said. “I’m looking for a big win-win. I think we’re going to have an opportunity to reinvest in the physical structure to make it an even better market.”

Kee said he had met with David Craft, one of two people heading up the Greensboro Farmers Market Inc. group, last week.

“Going through the RFP and talking with Mr. Craft, I believe it is his intent to expand the market and be inclusive of all the farmers, and bring in more farmers, like Montagnards,” Kee said.

The contract with Greensboro Farmers Market Inc. will be negotiated by staff and is subject to approval by council.

Rakestraw, who has met with one group of farmers over the past three years and asked senior city staff to get involved, argued in favor of council entrusting management to Coliseum Director Matt Brown.

“Throughout this past week I’ve heard people say, ‘Matt doesn’t want it,’” Rakestraw said. “I asked Rashad, who is his boss, and he said Matt is willing to run it. I’ve never known

Matt to be a shy, retiring person, and I think he would have stepped forward if he had a problem with it. He has several plates in the air and he can continue to do that.”

Disagreements in the past have pivoted on how much table space should be reserved for farmers as opposed to prepared food vendors and crafters, distinctions of size between agricultural vendors, enforcement of rules prohibiting reselling outside items and diversity of offerings. Greensboro Farmers Market Inc.’s proposal stresses inclusion of both vendors and customers in its governance structure. Despite its name, ultimate power under Farmer Community Collaborative would reside with a governing board comprised solely of farmers.

Yet, for all of the points of contention in policy, allocation and governance, much of the disagreement has seemed to be cultural.

“It’s very straightforward,” Knight said on Monday before voting against turning management over to the nonprofit. “I told someone: ‘I know a farmer when I see one.’” Perkins had telegraphed his position on July 27 with a Facebook post.

“We have to get this farmer’s market deal turned around,” he wrote. “The process needs to be followed and adjustments made by the new nonprofit board run by customers and vendors. The city council needs to work on creating some job opportunities for our citizens, not micromanaging the rules for the farmers market.”

Richard Beard, a member of the War Memorial Commission, signaled his opposition to having the coliseum manage the farmers market. The War Memorial Commission is a citizen advisory board for the coliseum.

“I am opposed to the coliseum staff managing the farmers market,” he said. “This is not something they should be drawn into. It is time for the city council to step up with some leadership and vote to let the nonprofit board operate the market. This is wasting a lot of time of our council when there are many other pressing issues.”

During a briefing last week in which council members heard from vendors and customers from both factions, those aligned with the Farmer Community Collaborative tended to favor having management turned over the coliseum. Those aligned with Greensboro Farmers Market Inc. argued the city should follow through with the process established through the request for proposals, and award management to them.

The dispute has taken on an intractable quality, with staff expending countless hours trying to mediate between the two sides and many council members coming to view the conflict as a political distraction.

“The manager chose the coliseum by default,” Perkins said on his Facebook page. “It was the only department that has the expertise to manage the market. The council made the decision to privatize the market over a year ago and sent out an RFP. Some on council did not like the group that was chosen by the citizens committee and affirmed by the parks and rec commission and asked the manager for another alternative. The council will vote on a direction on Monday night. I will support Greensboro Farmers Market Inc.’s proposal. They are forming a nonprofit that will run the market and include input from both customers and vendors. This will get the council out of the middle of a neverending debate and allow the coliseum staff to continue their outstanding work without being distracted by a political hot potato.”

A memo drafted by Assistant City Manager Denise Turner Roth three days after the briefing reflected staff’s lack of enthusiasm for continuing to manage the market.

“Although it remains the case that we believe that private management of the farmers market would be ideal,” Roth wrote, “the coliseum offers the maximum potential for revenue enhancement of the market through increased programming for the market….”

Council members said they’ve received more e-mails about the farmers market than almost any other topic in the past year or so, and Vaughan said they favored the Greensboro Farmers Market Inc. proposal by about nine to one.

Rodney Gann, a McLeansville farmer who submitted the Farmer Community Collaborative proposal, had not responded to an invitation from Craft to work together before the city council decision. After the vote was taken, he said he hoped Craft would call him.

“It’s all one cause,” he said. “The customers and the people of Greensboro need a farmers market. We all need to work together.”