WALLA WALLA — The city is poised for two farmers markets in the 2013 season.
One will be at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds, according to an announcement Friday. The other will remain in the municipal lot behind City Hall, if a separate group has its way.
But who will be operating them and how they will run is not yet clear.
On Friday the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market Association announced it will open the 2013 season at the fairgrounds. Though the group carries the traditional name of the 16-year-old market, many of the board members and vendors who have operated the market for years don’t appear to be a part of the relocation.
In fact, many of the board members had reportedly already been part of negotiations on a potential partnership to keep the market downtown. The relocation announcement did not include them.
After a tumultuous 2012 season with personality clashes, ongoing disputes and ultimately a decision by the city to not renew the Farmers Market lease at its City Hall property, vendors and board members have spent the last several months planning a fresh start, said Damien Sinnott, a former board member for the market.
He and other longtime market board members have been in talks with the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation on a partnership to help steer the market and keep it in its current location, Sinnott said. The market board had not been unanimous on the partnership but did have majority support, he said.
The downtown foundation board thus far has been split over the partnership, and a proposal is expected to be presented in greater detail to them next week.
However, those from the market who disagree with the direction are moving forward with a different plan, Sinnott said.
He said he and nearly every other board member for the market received certified letters Jan. 11 relieving them of their positions on the board.
The unsigned letters explained that the unincorporated market association is governed by current dues-paying members. An emergency meeting of those members was reportedly conducted, and a decision was made at that meeting to replace the board. The letter thanked board members for their service.
Sinnott said many of the market’s vendors may not yet have paid their dues for the calendar year at the time of the meeting and thus would not have been notified of the meeting.
Market board member Jayne Foster issued Friday’s announcement on the relocation.
“The fairgrounds location will be able to offer better parking facilities, indoor shopping on windy or rainy days and cool grass for those hot summer days,” the announcement said. “We know this will be a great place for the market and we think you will like it, too.”
Foster said the city’s decision not to renew the contract with the market left operations hanging for 2013. Although the market would be able to respond to a request for proposals for vendors and remain in the running as the operating body of the market, there was no guarantee it would be chosen.
“We didn’t know how that was going to go, and we didn’t want to wait to find out,” Foster said. “A group of vendors got together and voted to move.”
Foster declined to say who was involved in the decision or how many vendors are planning to make the transition. She said a market manager has not been selected.
If plans for a market at the existing site are successful, customers will benefit from having multiple locations and options, she said.
“They can go to both, or they can choose,” Foster said. “Customers can do what they want. There’s multiple grocery stores in town and people don’t usually just go to one.”
The city had been seeking new potential operators for Fourth Avenue and Main Street since Dec. 7, when it first issued a request for proposals.
“Given the issues surrounding the farmers market over the past few months it did not seem prudent to just renew the lease,” City Manager Nabiel Shawa said at the time.
Only two organizations requested informational packets: the existing market operators and the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.
Determined to get to the bottom of the disputes, the existing operators brought in financial and operational experts to tear through every aspect of the market, from accounting to governance.
Sinnott said no financial improprieties were uncovered. However financial records could be more complete, a change expected if the market moves forward in the original spot.
The study did conclude something with the governing structure wasn’t working and that the market’s location downtown is key to its success, Sinnott said.
He approached his board to see if other members would be open to pairing with the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation. That organization had operated the market from the beginning until 2006, when vendors and operators frustrated they didn’t have more autonomy pulled away in a contentious split.
The foundation’s past experience with the market and nonprofit status were seen as benefits to a potential partnership that would continue the market the way local residents have known it: live music, fresh produce, artisan crafts, food service and atmosphere.
The partnership is not yet solidified as the foundation’s board remains split on the prospect.
In the meantime, Shawa has extended the deadline for proposals to Feb. 13.
“I never envisioned this outcome,” he said. “I have to admit, as city manager I was heartened to see these two agencies working together on a solution.”
As a condition of moving forward together, administrative management of the market would be changed, said downtown foundation Executive Director Elio Agostini.
Agostini believes having a farmers market is a key element to a vibrant downtown. Sinnott said previous vendors and market board members are also determined to keep it going.
“We will do everything within our power to make sure that market exists,” he said. “It’s too good of a thing to let go. It’s that important to the community.”
If the foundation board ultimately decides not to take the market back on as an operation, Shawa, too, said the city would find a way to provide the community with a market in the same spot for 2013.
“One way or another we’re going to have a farmers market,” he said. “We’re not going to allow the community to go without a farmers market.