The Soulard Farmers Market.
Last month, Saint Louis City officials unveiled a plan to spend up to $18 million renovating the historic city-owned and managed Soulard Farmers Market. The city plans to partially rely on revenues from a proposed tax hike for funding. However, there is an alternative to a multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded makeover: privatization.
When nearly 40 farmers’ markets (see page 4) markets popped up across Saint Louis, including four markets within a 3-mile radius of the Soulard Market, and Walmart and Target began carrying fresh groceries, Soulard Market did not adapt. Its prices are higher than Walmart, it misses out on Sunday shoppers because it is closed, its structures are a mess, and it faces a branding problem as a nearly farmer-less farmers’ market, where “very few vendors grow what they sell.”
The market faces daunting odds: it has operated at a loss for most of its recent history and another downtown farmers’ market was cancelled last year due to a lack of interest. While the city’s plan makes strides in responding to evolving shopper preferences, it targets a symptom instead of the disease, doing so at the cost of millions in taxpayer dollars for another potential redevelopment failure.
The benefits from privatization could be numerous. The property, which is protected under historic ordinances and could potentially be further protected through historic preservation easements, would provide revenue to the city or allow slightly lower tax rates if it was sold. Private ownership would create a stronger profit motive because owners would be personally invested in the market. Owners/lessees, not taxpayers, would assume the risk of development. Even if the proposed plan is perfect, privatization would be beneficial to increase competition.
Currently, public planners are tip-toeing around vendors more concerned with maintaining their status quo of privilege (from a time “years ago when rules were a little more lax or when variances were allowed”) than promoting the long-term success of the market. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes the vendors’ reluctance to bring competition to the market:
[Vendors] worry that new vendors could drive them from their turf and scare away customers who rely on the market . . .They . . . worry that any reconfiguration of the market could change dynamics that have fallen into place over decades of doing business.
What vendors miss here is that the “dynamics that have fallen into place” are a major reason the market has become a ghost of its former self. Maintaining long-standing vendor-shopper relationships and character is important, even for a private market, yet respect for culture does not preclude dramatic change. But tell that to the vendors:
“I know what makes my place click,” [a vendor] said. “If they [re-situate] everything, it would throw off everyone’s business. Why don’t you just build this fantasy market across the street and see who stays in business longer?”
These fantasy markets are a reality. Others are doing what the Soulard Market does, but better. The proposed plan is a short-term gamble to solve a long-term problem. The best long-term bet for the market is private ownership and management.
As for who will stay in business longer, vendor Lenard Chartrand is not revealing any secrets when he when he says, “The market has to change or it will die.”