WALLA WALLA — After a season with more strife than usual at the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market, the operation may be ripe for new management, Walla Walla’s city manager said Friday.
Nabiel Shawa said he wants to invite other potential operators to come forward and possibly take over the market at Fourth Avenue and Main Street next season.
“All I want is for that to be a happy place again,” Shawa said.
His idea has not yet been fully vetted with the Walla Walla City Council, he said. But unless otherwise directed, he intends to seek new operators to run the market at the city-owned property.
The process would need to take place relatively quickly. Shawa said he would want to identify a new operator by around the first of the year. Respondents to the request would have 30 days to apply. To meet those deadlines and have time to sort through potential applicants, a request for proposals would need to be filed soon.
But Walla Walla Sweet Onion vendor and market board member Bud Locati said Saturday searching for a new operator could do more harm than good. If the current market operators were not granted the contract, he said he would not be likely to remain under other management. He believes other growers may share his perspective. The market previously operated under the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation. Locati said the group split so it could be independent. A new operator would be a step backward, he said.
“I don’t want the market to be divided, but if we have to move we’re going to move,” he said. “I don’t want that to happen, but I think the city needs to let us work this out.”
Although the city has no ownership of the market it owns the property where the current market operates behind City Hall. That land agreement is set to expire at the end of December.
The end of the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market’s 16th season this weekend caps what some vendors have described as its most dysfunctional.
A conflict between one vendor and the market manager has been at the heart of the issues. But Friday at least a half-dozen other vendors came forward in a meeting with Shawa to voice concerns about everything from poor communication at the market to what they described as an environment of fear.
Many were pleased to hear of Shawa’s plans to seek a new operator. Photographic artist Jim Willis said he hopes candidates will include a marketing plan and a thorough explanation for how to process grievances — two operating components he believes are lacking in the current market.
The meeting was requested by longtime vendor Antoinette LaRondelle. The market’s board president, Ron Courson, attended, along with about 25 to 30 other people, including Walla Walla City Council members Barbara Clark and Shane Laib and Police Chief Scott Bieber.
LaRondelle initially wanted the meeting because she had been notified that her business would not be allowed to operate the last weekend of the season. Some board members say she had violated her previous operating agreement because her separate managers had not been onsite, a claim LaRondelle denies. By the end of Friday’s meeting, Courson said LaRondelle could operate.
Still city employees and elected officials acted as a sounding board for other vendor concerns Friday.
Shawa was clear ahead of time the city had no authority in the operation, including vendor selection or placement. Really, he said, it was a chance to give some of the vendors a voice outside of the market and its own board, many of whom are vendors themselves.
Tension had reportedly been bubbling at the market this season but came to a head when LaRondelle clashed with market Manager Beth-Aimee McGuire. LaRondelle was asked to leave the market in August because of a Health Department violation. But her supporters say the issue went back even farther than that because she had been an outspoken critic of McGuire and was perceived as rocking the boat.
After having a license reissued by the Health Department, LaRondelle’s business was allowed to return to the market under new management.
As lines were drawn over sides, the environment became more intense, vendors said Friday. It revealed itself in what were perceived by those who spoke Friday as unusually harsh reactions to vendors being a few minutes late to set up or to a vendor-generated survey to gather input on how the market could improve. Many vendors said they have been fearful of repercussions if they ask questions or voice disagreement.
“Every Saturday we have been there we have seen somebody get bullied,” said Cyndi Walters, whose Crêpe Café de Walla Walla was new to the market this year. “A couple of vendors we know have told us they are not returning.”
Andy Asmus of Welcome Table Farm said he hesitated to speak out because he had worried that discord could affect the livelihood of his business, which generates about half its income through the market.
“There’s an atmosphere of suspicion and fear because no one knows what’s going on or why,” he said. “People are afraid to ask questions. But if we’re all in it together, we should all know what’s going on.”
Locati said the number of upset vendors is relatively small. With an estimated 80 vendors operating at some point or another throughout the season there are bound to be challenges. He said a number of vendors have repeatedly broken rules, and board members have tried to address those when they can. Some of the violations — including vendors being late for setup and driving through barricades to get their spots — can pose serious safety risks to those around them.
He believes some of the tension may be caused for certain types of vendors by the economy and decreases in business. He said the board may be able to help those vendors if the board is aware of the problem. But vendors need to communicate, as well, he said.
“That’s stuff we need to talk about. Not have a division in the market. That makes the board, managers and vendors on edge.”
Vendors continued to question the market’s status as a for-profit operation after attempts to achieve nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service failed.
The series of concerns and happenings was an “eye opener” for then-board member Susan Hosticka, a honey vendor. Shortly after a meeting to address the issues in early September, she resigned from the board. “I just felt I was not a good fit for this board and wasn’t able to influence everything moving forward,” she said Friday.
The board did, however, come up with a plan of action, said board member Damien Sinnott.
Its approach was a two-part plan. The first: Reach out to several respected nonprofit organizations and ask each to find a representative who could read the market’s financial statements, evaluate them and make recommendations for moving forward. That step has been taken, Sinnott said, and each organization is in the process of finding such a person.
The second step: Bring in a third-party consultant for a complete assessment of the operation — from governance to management — and devise recommendations for moving forward.
Sinnott said he hadn’t been informed of the more recent events that led up to LaRondelle being initially told she couldn’t operate this weekend. He hopes to learn more at the board’s next meeting at the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce office on Monday. He had no comment on Shawa’s plan to seek a potential new operator. He also had no comment on whether a staffing change is needed for the current operation.
“We’ve gotten to the point where emotions are so high on different sides that I don’t think anybody involved in the process can actually make that determination on their own,” Sinnott said.