Monday, September 02, 2013

Let's rethink the St Jacobs Farmer's Market

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.


Anonymous said...


I found your article interesting. You make a number of good points about the importance of grass roots elements in a market, and security for vendors. However, I have a different take on a number of your comments.

One of the great things about the St. Jacobs farmers market is that it is an affordable place to buy meat and produce. In many ways this predates the recent 'urban' market trend, which is taking over many cities and sees boutique/artisan everything with prices that are 2-3x higher than grocery stores rather than more affordable and fresh than Zehrs and Safeway. I grew up at the St Jacobs farmers market, worked at the market for a number of years and am constantly shocked by the sticker prices of food at other 'farmers' markets.There could definitely be efforts to promote more grass roots/micro scale arts and food vendors, but this has never been the main focus of this popular location nor is it necessarily why people come to this market. These different vendors types should be balanced.

Your comments about the architecture is where our opinions diverge the most. For one thing, the eight double door exits around the perimeter of the market were more than adequate for a safe and efficient evacuation in any circumstance. An unnecessary additional concern in your article.

Secondly, it is precisely the 10' wide isles that drove the success of this place. I've been to markets around the world, and I am often struck by the feeling of spaciousness in most market buildings and the damaging effect it has on the market atmosphere. It makes most markets feel barren and boring. Granted the narrower 10' wide isles make the SJ market more challenging to navigate and ideal for pickpocketing if that were actually a problem, but that is precisely what excites people about this place - The bustling atmosphere is the spirit of the St. Jacobs farmers market. An easy comparison is with the Kitchener farmers market, which has overly wide aisles and feels stark at the best of times.

Another 'substandard' space is The St. Jacobs Market food court, which is a highly compressed space with picnic tables jammed end to end and with aisles that are only 1' wide. This has been a great success as it is a simple, flexible space with highly valued real estate (seats) and the proximity to meet people whether you intended to or not (since you are almost always shoulder to shoulder). This long table seating seating style is a trend that is just now beginning to take hold in new restaurants. In combination with the 15 minute lineup for apple fritters and lines at all food booths, there is an energy that won't be replicated with a more spacious layout, and people may no longer find it intriguing and worth the visit.

It is surprising how accusatory your article is and perhaps you should give MC a call and talk it out. I do think you made an interesting point about ownership and it would be beneficial if there were an opportunity for vendors to become more invested in the market through some sort of a quasi-coop model. I hope the best for the rebuilding process and that the wooden cathedral will stand again (with sprinklers this time).

Yappa said...

Hi Anonymous -

Wow! Great comment. Thanks. You make excellent points.

I never thought about the narrow aisles being a pro. I guess all I can say is it isn't a pro for me. I hate being stuck in a mass of people, unable to go back or forward. I now only go to the market on Tuesdays or Thursdays after 1, and still it's sometimes jammed. As a contrast, the St Lawrence Market has wide, wide aisles.

I like your idea about vendors part-owning the market. I hadn't thought of that either. Again citing Toronto... the St Lawrence market is owned by the city. I don't see why we can't do that.

I will continue to think through your comments. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I hope this next comment doesn't sound overly cynical, but I have some reasons why I don't think the SJ farmers market should be owned by the Township.

While a farmers market can be owned by a city, I don't really know what benefits come from this besides a potential land tax break, which could be passed on to the vendors or perhaps the ability to offset poor revenues within a much larger city budget.

I've lived in and worked for a number cities and unfortunately from my experiences, the idea of city and management put in the same sentence doesn't bode well in very many circumstances, especially when considering something that requires ongoing care and market innovation. Local governments have too many cooks including Mayors, Councillors, CAOs, Department Managers etc. Councillors, who make decisions about major municipal project funding often have conflicting goals which can cause either a continuous source of change when none is needed, or the opposite, grid lock when decisive action is necessary. Generally speaking, I don't think city governments are stable or agile enough to properly undertake business management and maintain marketing innovation needed to run a prosperous enterprise, such as a market over the long-term. Whether or not the Mercedes Corp has done a good job of managing the market, they have a personal/financial stake in the success of the enterprise, which can't be said for civil servants who technically can't have personal financial stake in their work.

In a large city like Toronto, the idea of the St. Lawrence Market being owned by the City may be more appropriate as large cities are possibly better equipped to manage large land holdings etc. and/or can offset capital expenditures or operating losses within their much larger budget. One example of governments owning large assets linked to private enterprise and that require ongoing management is the ownership of large sports stadiums or arenas, which has had disastrous results in many cases for the tax payer. Two recent examples are sky dome which cost $600 million to build and was eventually sold to Rogers for $25 million, and BC place which just had a new roof constructed for between $400 million-$1 billion, not fully disclosed) to be paid by taxpayers. Governments often make bad decisions when it comes to managing large assets that are linked with private enterprise.

Anonymous said...


A closer example is the City of Kitchener. I may be wrong, but I believe the Kitchener Market is owned by the City of Kitchener. It is a medium sized city but it has never been able to garner much support for it's market be it location or what not. The City constructed a new downtown Kitchener Farmers Market which is having limited to moderate success. The City is likely doing this in order to fulfill a long-term planning vision of downtown landmarks and city livability and it is willing to take poor short-term performance for a hoped long-term success. That may be okay, but it just means that the market is a social enterprise being paid for/subsidized by the City taxpayers.

Is a market to be a social right provided by government or is it a priviledge that should exist only if it's economically viable?

It should be noted that St. Jacobs, the tourist attraction required a grand vision and decades of ongoing effort through a number of recessions, and that the farmers market is one element of the vision. St. Jacobs is a success story for creating jobs and a tourism industry in the Waterloo Region. The decades of work and risk to create this outcome was taken originally by a small number of entrepreneurs including Mercedes Corp. and the number of entrepreneurs that have committed to this vision has grown substantially over the decades through the many shops and vendors. None of this was the result of local government vision, planning or management.

There are a few examples where the concept of St. Jacobs the town and the market was potentially helped by local government. First, the Township has managed to preserve an agricultural green belt of farmland around the town so that it doesn't look like a suburb to the City of Waterloo and therefore was able to maintain the country atmosphere of the town and market. That is a land use milestone that would have been less likely had it not been known as the 'Village of St. Jacobs'. Another example of positive Township Planning intervention is when the new Tim Horton's was subject to design review (whether or not one would consider that a success).

Sorry for my overly lengthy response mixing government management and city planning. One last food for thought.

A not too far fetched example of why we wouldn't want the Township of Woolwich managing the St. Jacobs Farmers Market, is that if it were currently under Township control, it likely would have been selected as the location for lottery and gaming expansion. Government/Council and public interest sometimes go hand in hand, but more often 'quick fixes' are the popular way out for Councillors that may lack vision and decades of vested interest in such a venture as the St. Jacobs Farmers Market.

Ron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ron said...

A lot of us don't have any illusions about the market. We come from Peel Region several times a year. The encroachment of the hotel, Walmart, TCS etc aren't necessarily to our liking. I miss the market across the street, I miss the country feel of parking on that side where the Mennonites hitched their wagons.

It's also hard to find legitimate local vendors in the produce area outside, definitely some bigger businesses there (the place always hawking U.S. strawberries for one).

On the other hand it IS a destination, and those like us who come from elsewhere visit other places in the region every time we visit. Frankenmuth in Michigan and Pennsylvania Dutch country are similarly commercialized but there's a plus side to it as well.

The aisles ARE narrow, the double wide strollers get in the way too. I wonder if all this talk about "barn raising" isn't a bit premature. The Peddlars' building next door might possibly have similar fire safety issues, one wonders if the fire marshal will look at that.

First thing I thought after the fire; things are going to change no matter what, and we of a certain vintage may not like that change.

margaret said...

st jacobs market draws thousands of people so they must have done something right people come from all over the world so this speaks for its self no more said

Yappa said...

Hi Margaret,

Thanks for the comment. You're right, Mercedes did a good job of creating a successful privately owned tourist attraction and I'm sure it makes them a lot of money. It is the largest market in Canada and I'm sure that it provides spin-off benefits to the area around it. (For example, there will soon be three large brand name hotels around it.)

What I'm arguing is that we also need a market that serves farmers, small vendors, local shoppers and Mennonites. And in those regards I think it could be improved.