Local farmers and Old Town merchants turned out at Temecula City Hall this week to air their opinions about the city’s likely increased control over the Old Town farmers market.
In a 4-0 vote Tuesday night with Councilman Chuck Washington absent, the Temecula City Council agreed to adopt recommendations that it keep the current market operator in place and forego putting the popular, long-standing attraction out to bid. So although current operator Farmer’s Market Management Inc. will not face competition from other potential bidders, the final language of a new agreement must still be hammered out.
A new agreement will likely require Farmer’s Market Management Inc. to work more closely with the city. For example, it's proposed that vendors wishing to sell handcrafted items will need to be approved by both the operator and the city. It’s also proposed that Temecula code enforcement visit the market every week and issue any needed violations swiftly. Additionally, Old Town merchants would get priority over other vendors who may want to sell at the market.
The nearly 80-stall outdoor market, held every Saturday in the city-owned parking lot located at the northwest corner of Mercedes and Sixth streets, draws visitors from across the region, but it has seen controversy in recent years. Some Old Town merchants have complained the market’s vendors cannibalize their brick-and-mortar businesses by selling manufactured goods at cut-rate prices.
During Tuesday night’s meeting, city council agreed that a new agreement must include language spelling out that wares sold at the market should be at least 50 percent handcrafted. The city would have final say on whether to approve or deny a vendor.
Tuesday night’s vote was based on recommendations made by vendors, merchants, and Old Town Steering Committee members Mayor Mike Naggar and Councilman Ron Roberts.
Many vendors and merchants were in the audience Tuesday night, and nearly all showed strong support for Gale Cunningham, operator of Farmer’s Market Management Inc.
Theresa Bolton of Slow Food Temecula Valley praised the market and Cunningham, but expressed concerns over the city’s proposed increased involvement.
“I don’t think more rules are the answer,” she said.
Barbara Clemons, a local organic farmer, agreed. She said the markets are about bringing the community together, and she worried the city may not understand the farmer culture.
Councilman Jeff Comerchero raised concerns last year of whether the city should go out to bid for a new market operator. He said his motivations were based strictly on transparency and fairness, saying he wanted “a good, honest discussion” as to whether a request for proposal should go out.
After studying the issue, the subcommittee of Roberts and Naggar recommended against an RFP.
Tuesday Comerchero told council he was satisfied with that recommendation.
Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards said the market has a great reputation and draws thousands to the area, but she noted the city must balance that success with the success of local merchants, which was why she voted in favor of accepting the subcommittee recommendations to tighten control.
As part of the discussion Tuesday night, it was agreed the subcommittee would, at a future date, study the feasibility of adding some sort of trolley or other transportation service to and from the market and the Old Town parking structure.
Expansion of the farmer’s market on city property was turned down Tuesday night, but council members left the door open for expansion onto private property.
Because the current lease agreement with Farmer’s Market Management Inc. is set to expire April 1, staff will bring a new agreement forward for city council consideration no later than March 26.
The agreement is expected to bump the operator’s lease up to $1,000 a month from $400.
Naggar was doubtful the increase would cover the costs of additional city resources necessitated by a new agreement.