Waterloo woke this morning to the sad news that the main building of the St Jacobs Farmer's Market had burned to the ground. Already there is an outpouring of sympathy and support to the owner, Mercedes Corp. I am afraid that this post has a somewhat different tone. I see this tragedy as an opportunity to rethink our approach to the market - and make some substantive changes.
In a 2009 post (Market Memories) I was quite critical of Mercedes Corp. I wrote that post when Mercedes shut down the Waterloo Mennonite market and moved the vendors across the street to their tourist-oriented site, which locals historically called the Stockyards. That site is now our sole farmer's market - the St Jacob's Farmer's Market - and is the site of last night's fire.
A farmer's market is part of our heritage, an important part of our economy, and a vital link between the rural and urban parts of our community. It is much more than a tourist attraction. It is a resource for the community: for farmers and small businesses to sell their goods, and for people to purchase locally-made food and other items.
Mercedes Corp did not invent the market. We always had one. Mercedes Corp was somehow able to purchase the market, but many of the shoppers and best vendors predate Mercedes. Over the years I have increasingly felt that the market should not be in private hands, or at the least should be more influenced by the needs of its stakeholders.
My particular concerns are:
1. I am concerned that Mercedes Corp does not provide a fair environment for the vendors. The vendors seem to have no security - apparently they can be (and are) moved or kicked out without notice. I haven't asked vendors recently about the price they pay to have stands at the market, but a few years ago they said that the prices were doubling and then tripling. The vendors are rationally afraid to speak out, but the ones I talk to say that their sales have dropped as the number of visitors increase: the marketing strategy of Mercedes Corp has attracted too many non-shopping tourists, or people who are there for cheap sunglasses and tube socks. This isn't a new problem, but it continues to get worse.
2. I am concerned that Mercedes Corp does not provide a safe and convenient environment for shoppers. The aisles are too narrow for the crowds. That means that people waiting to buy on both sides of the aisle leave only a narrow space for people trying to move down the middle. The problem is compounded by the many enormous baby buggies. The overcrowding isn't just inconvenient; it's unsafe: God forbid something happen during market hours. (The new building should have wider aisles or it should have bollards that prevent non-pedestrians from entering the shopping aisles.)
3. I am concerned that the business model of the current market allows only for vendor-businesses, and shuts out homegrown initiatives. I remember one summer buying sweet peas from two teenage boys who had created summer jobs for themselves by planting a lot of flowers and renting a table at the market for part of the summer. You used to see a lot of that sort of thing, but the current market seems to have no amateur or short-term vendors.
4. I am concerned that the market is no longer Mennonite-friendly. There are fewer and fewer Old Order Mennonites there, although there appear to be some vendors who impersonate Mennonites (heavy eye make-up under a bonnet is a suspicious clue).
I'm 55 now. I've been shopping at Waterloo's farmer's markets since I was 7, and I still go to the St Jacobs market weekly. I do hope that the building will be replaced speedily, for the good of the vendors, the shoppers, and Mercedes Corp. I strongly believe that the new market needs to be more attentive to the needs of its stakeholders, but I fear that Mercedes Corp will use this opportunity to make the market even more commercial and take it even further from its roots.
See also my 2009 post: Market Memories.