La Mesa farmers market gets six-month extension for new downtown location

The La Mesa Certified Farmers Market’s half-year honeymoon in its new downtown digs is over. And, at least for now, the popular weekly event will continue to be held Fridays on La Mesa Boulevard.

In May, the farmers market that has been overseen by the city since 1993 moved out of the corner space it occupied for seven years inside the La Mesa Civic Center parking lot along Allison Avenue.

It was given six months to win over residents, downtown Village businesses, visitors and the City Council in its new two-block stretch between Fourth Street and Palm Avenue.

Since the shift, the La Mesa Boulevard location has drawn mixed reviews. While many shoppers say they love it, some “brick and mortar” businesses say it’s costing them customers.

After three hours of discussion at last week’s standing-room-only City Council meeting, the council agreed to give the market another six months before it takes any action.

That action could include moving the location, changing its hours, making it seasonal or choosing different types of vendors. A plan to possibly put the kibosh on the market altogether was briefly considered, but eventually rejected.

Within the next 90 days, city staff will meet with all those who have a stake in the market to try to help the factions reach a consensus about any outstanding issues. Staff will then report back to the City Council at a public meeting.

“We are going to try and broker a peace between the businesses who are suffering and those who are in support,” said City Councilwoman Kristine Alessio. “It’s awful to have civil war in the community.”

The council said the layout of the market would need to change as soon as possible, asking that vendor booths be inverted so that the fronts face the businesses on the boulevard.

As of Friday, the market booths were facing the same way they had since May. Most of the vendors said they were not aware of the change.

Farmers’ market manager Brian Beevers said the booths won’t turn around until January. He said the vendors would be notified, a reconfiguration would have to be mapped out, and the San Diego County Agriculture, Weights & Measures department would have to weigh in.

Beevers took over management of the farmers’ market last April. He manages several other farmers’ markets around the county and runs La Mesa’s with the sponsorship of the nonprofit La Mesa Village Association.

During its six-month trial run, Beevers and the Association recruited new vendors to be part of the boulevard switch, more than doubling the 25 mainstays. They also changed the hours of operation — switching from 2 to 6 to 3 to 7 p.m. The two-block stretch of the street with its 57 metered parking spots is closed from 1 to 8 p.m.

More than a dozen residents spoke last week about the new site, most of them pushing for it to continue in the same manner.

Fifteen-year La Mesa resident Josh Krimston called the market “a game-changer creating a new sense of community,” bringing more energy to the downtown area.

Brian Pedersen said he “massively supports” the market. Pedersen said he lived in a small village in upstate New York for many years and moved to the downtown La Mesa area in 2012 because it had the same charm, and a similar “hustle and bustle.”

He said the market’s “growing pains is a step to growing gains.”

Several speakers told the City Council they frequented the market‘s open-feel La Mesa Boulevard venue far more often than when it was tucked away in a parking lot. More than 100 people sent letters to the city about the new venue, the majority in favor of the current setup.

La Mesa staff shared statistics about the positive financial gains made because of the event. They said contrary to concerns about losing money from the loss of the 57 metered two-hour maximum parking spots, the city said it was actually in the black with more vehicles parking in other metered spots.

The city presented results from a survey it conducted that showed strong support for the market from most local “brick and mortar” businesses. It also conducted a survey of farmers’ market shoppers, the majority of whom said they were also eating and/or shopping at Village businesses while visiting the farmers’ market..

According to La Mesa Village Association President Peter Soutowood, who owns Fourpenny House, a brewpub on La Mesa Boulevard, the market has been a huge downtown draw for both residents and people from neighboring areas.

And those visitors have been spending money.

According to a report by the city, the farmers' market at Civic Center generated about $207,000 in gross sales between May and September of 2017. During that same span in 2018, the relocated market generated about $373,000 in gross sales — an 80 percent increase.

But some downtown Village proprietors, specifically a handful of longtime food and beverage establishments, have repeatedly complained to the City Council about losing money on Fridays, pointing fingers at the new site of the market.

Access for patrons is compromised by the vendors and the loss of the 57 prime parking spots from 1 to 8 p.m on Fridays, they say.

Johnny Bedlion, owner of Johnny B’s Burgers, Brew & Spirits, said his 20-year business at the corner of Fourth Street and La Mesa Boulevard has been adversely affected — losing between $29,000 and $50,000 during the past six months.

“I work real hard to build my daytime business, which is difficult,” Bedlion said. “Since the market opened on Friday (on La Mesa Boulevard), my daytime business has dropped significantly, my sales on average have dropped between $1,200 and $2,000 on Friday.

“I have staff who depend on my business to make their living. Their tips are half of what they used to be on Friday. I've talked to other servers and bartenders on the boulevard, and they say the same thing. It's hard for these folks and they have to make their ends meet just like everyone else.”

He said he sees the Village area becoming more vibrant and that he embraced the market, but that the day or venue needed to change.

Local bookstore owner Craig Maxwell told the city he was speaking on behalf of several other businesses that have seen a drop in customer visits.

“Friday afternoon used to be my best, now it is my worst,” Maxwell said. “I have lost thousands of dollars. And I’m not the only one.”

Mayor Mark Arapostathis said while he empathized with the plight of hurting businesses, the council should not lose sight of the fact that the public is “overwhelmingly in favor of this, it’s undeniable.”

He reminded the council that the city spent $7 million over the past several years on its downtown streetscape improvements, and was adamant that the market be given more time at its new location.

“All boats rise with the tide,” he said, “and we need to do something about controlling the tide… (and) evolve so that everyone’s rising together.”

Soutowood told the City Council that the Association is dependent on the farmers’ market to keep it running and allow it to put on other downtown events like Oktoberfest.

He said he was looking forward to working with the city to herald in the consensus the city seeks, but that he remains skeptical.

Soutowood said he feared that businesses rallying against the market would not make it easy to compromise. He said some were not adapting to citywide shifts and changes and that they needed to “really take a hard look at the state of La Mesa and the demographics” and learn ways to benefit from new foot traffic.

He said some businesses did not seem to understand that things in the city are not as they used to be “and are trying to regain what was five, 10, 20 years ago.”

“I haven’t heard any other options other than just stopping it,” Soutowood said. “I’m happy to look at other things, move forward with modifications… Let’s see what we can do, let’s see what the others are saying. I’ll be happy to hear it.”

karen.pearlman@sduniontribune.com

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