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From Paid Parking to Extra Days, the Long Talked About Changes at the West Side Market Are Closer than Ever to Happening 

Market watch

Prior to the West Side Market's 100th birthday, the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation (now known as Ohio City, Inc.) oversaw a West Side Market Centennial Commission organized at the behest of Mayor Frank Jackson. In March 2011, this commission released a lengthy report analyzing the Market's current operations and areas of need, and recommended a comprehensive series of changes for everything from the parking lots to lease structures to the building itself.

This document preceded a flurry of centennial-driven 2012 discussion about the future of the West Side Market, which is owned and operated by the City of Cleveland. Although an early 2013 fire dampened the conversation, chatter about parking lot construction started back up in fall 2014 and again this summer; schedule modifications once again also seemed imminent. In fact, as 2015 draws to a close, many of the long-discussed possible West Side Market changes finally seem likely to happen.

Really.

"A lot of the changes have to do with the how the City of Cleveland administers the lease of the property," says Joe Cimperman, city councilman for Ward 3, which includes the West Side Market's Ohio City neighborhood. "So we're the landlord. And so figuring out the hours we're going to be open, the days, how everything's going to work. We're getting really good feedback from some of the market vendors about things that would work really well for them, and we're reviewing them.

"We're hoping that by the time the lease has to be reviewed by the vendors that the stuff we have been talking about will be more solidified," he continues. "But we're absolutely moving forward with the things we had talked about earlier this summer."

These include two gestures that reflect—and acquiesce to—modern grocery shopping habits: having the West Side Market be open an additional day, Sunday, and keeping it open later on Wednesdays. Other potential changes include signing up vendors to multi-year leases (currently, they're renewed on a yearly basis) and loosening open container restrictions in the Market.

Separately but simultaneously, long-discussed plans to merge the parking lots behind the West Side Market also appear to be all systems go. "The City received multiple bids on the project earlier this month," Ken Silliman, Mayor Jackson's Chief of Staff, tells Scene. "The next step is for our Board of Control to authorize a contract with the lowest responsible bidder." This construction, which Cimperman estimates would begin at the end of the first quarter of 2016, would create one larger lot, creating over 100 additional parking spaces. And after this project is complete, paid parking is likely on the horizon as well.

The exact scope and timeline of these West Side Market operational changes and parking lot adjustments are still being worked out. (In fact, any changes to Market hours or days must be written into tenant leases, which at press time weren't yet available.) What's clear, however, is that these changes represent far more than just extra parking or another day in the week to buy groceries.

"Basically, what the reforms are all grounded in is, 'How do we completely integrate the life of the Market and the neighborhood and the city?'" Cimperman says.

That's easier said than done, however. Because there are so many different stakeholders involved, any proposed changes to the West Side Market reverberate well beyond the building walls. In fact, about the only consensus is that all parties involved want what's best for the West Side Market and Ohio City, and want to see the both thrive and grow for years to come. How that happens—and how best to make that happen—is where things diverge.

The West Side Market was founded in 1840 and moved to its current location in 1912. It's come a long way since then: In fact, the Market has become a must-see tourist attraction and a nationally recognized landmark. In 2010, Food Network magazine named it the "Best Food Lovers' Market" in the country, while the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern included several vendors in its Cleveland guide, and the Cooking Channel's Pizza Masters visited the market in early 2015. This heightened profile has coincided with the exploding popularity of the Detroit Avenue, Lorain Avenue and West 25th Street corridors, which have become a haven for beer aficionados and restaurant-goers alike. In fact, Ohio City Inc. executive director Tom McNair says the commercial vacancy rate in the area around the market currently stands at below 2%, down from around 40% in 2009.

However, boosting the surrounding commercial corridor is just one facet of the strategy in play to support the Market and foster growth, McNair says. Increasing residential development is another: Ohio City has approximately 10,000 residents, but there are over 800 units of housing currently under development, McNair notes, which will increase the neighborhood population. The idea is to create proximity shoppers, "the types of people who would shop at the market on a consistent basis, as opposed to, say, being one of those people who comes in and shops once a month at the market," he says. "The more people we can add to this neighborhood, the more likely it is that there will be people who want to shop at the market, because it's a very special place."

That it is: With over 100 vendors, the Market itself is its own self-contained business district offering everything from produce to pierogi to pasta. Many of these vendors have been at the market for decades, creating a familiar, family-like atmosphere that's been passed on to multiple generations of shoppers. However, the Market's traditions are also one reason why enacting change is so difficult: In fact, its current Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday schedule is a holdover from the time when it was open on opposite days as the Central and East Side public markets. Both of these, however, closed in 1988.

"I work with my mom, and she's been there 45 years," says Ryan Sheppard, the owner of Frank's Bratwurst and the current president of the West Side Market Tenants' Association. "You know, creature of habit. After 45 years, when somebody wants to change something, everybody gets nervous about it. I see it first-hand. It's hard—because I'll stand there, and people will come up [and] they're like, 'Oh, it's so slow today' or it's this, or that. It's really easy to complain, but when you try to come up with a solution to fix the business or the problem, and then they complain about that. It's like, 'Well, make up your mind already.'"

Sheppard says he's proposed some things to ease the transition, such as a trial period where rent would stay the same even with the extra day open, so people can then "re-evaluate the situation next year to try gauge people's business and their opinions and the customers' opinions and how convenient it is for everybody." (Rents aren't necessarily increasing, he clarifies—the possibility of a boost just worries vendors, since it's unclear whether having the Market open another day might involve higher costs to accommodate additional staff.) Plus, vendors won't be required to work on Sunday; the day is completely optional.

Cimperman suggests these operational alterations won't all roll out at once, which should also make changes easier. "We're going to take this thing in steps," he says. "There's a way to do this, and it doesn't have to be all at once. It doesn't have to be jumping into the freezing shores of Lake Erie." He estimates that the Market being open on Sunday would happen first, "in the next few months," with some form of extended Wednesday hours coming after that. "That may not be every Wednesday," Cimperman says, "but that's definitely something that the Mayor's looking at, in terms of how would that work for staffing.

"As much as we want to get all this stuff done, we recognize completely that there's an infrastructure in place—a human infrastructure—that you don't want to put everything so much at once that it ends up failing, because it was overload," he adds.

Of course, not every vendor is resistant to progress. "I would love to see more parking, because the neighborhood has grown," says Don Whitaker, owner of D.W. Whitaker Meats, which is celebrating 25 years at the Market in 2016. "I'm not knocking the growth or anything—it's nice to see people down there. The hours—I think we need to address them. Sundays, I'm not against it. We will open. And it would relieve the parking stress, too, if you had more choices to go on the weekend. I know a lot of people are working during the week.

"I can't speak for everyone in the market—I know there's a lot of people very passionate about not opening on Sundays," he adds. "But if it happened to Whitaker Meats, we would adhere to the lease and do it, because if the customers want it, we will know if it's a success. There'll be people there."

Indeed, changing consumer habits are a major reason for the proposed changes: People are often still at work during the current West Side Market operating hours, while weekend days are popular grocery shopping days. According to McNair, the market attracts over 10,000 shoppers on a Saturday and draws 1.8 million visitors annually. That's a healthy number, but it's a far cry from the 4 million shoppers that visited in 1950, when Ohio City's population was greater than it is now.

"The truth is, food is a multi-billion dollar industry in Cleveland," Cimperman says. "The West Side Market happens to be the Vatican of food, in terms of our city. It's very holy and respected and sacred. And if we only adjusted it a little bit, I think the amount of commerce that we could get there would be incredible, and I think the people who would benefit most from it would be the vendors."

To many vendors, one of the biggest deterrents to West Side Market growth is the lack of parking in the neighborhood. "Overall, the biggest concern is, business is slow because there's no parking," Sheppard says. "Anybody you talked to, they'll say the same thing." However, it's not just Market patrons and vendors feeling the strain: As anyone who's attempted to park in the lots on a day when it's open will attest, it's often a challenge finding a space.

Complicating matters is the fact that these lots aren't populated exclusively by Market visitors. Parishioners of Saint Emeric Catholic Church, which was reopened by the diocese in 2012, park in that lot when they attend mass. And, to the chagrin of many, plenty of non-Market patrons use the lot as a park-and-ride outpost for the nearby RTA routes, or leave their car there when they go to ballgames downtown or head to nearby St. Ignatius. And then there's the separate issue of Ohio City residents feeling squeezed—after all, many depend on street parking because they have no driveways. (To combat this, Cimperman says a residential permit system could be in play as soon as summer 2016.)

Consolidating the lots behind the West Side Market—which will be managed by the City of Cleveland—should help ease some of this daytime crunch. But even that's fraught with complexity and controversy: Although it's likely this combined lot will no longer have free parking, it's yet to be determined how much this might cost. Several options are being considered, although the most likely direction seems to be free parking for a certain amount of time—possibilities include 30, 60 or 90 minutes, or even two hours—and then a charge after that. (Cimperman says Mayor Jackson is currently reviewing the various parking proposals.)

Ohio City restaurateur Sam McNulty feels "strongly" that there needs to be a parking charge, but says "we want to be an example of best practices. We very much want the parking fee to be very affordable for all. We don't want there to be any financial barrier to entry. We want all walks of life—folks from all socioeconomic levels—to be able to park and visit the neighborhood, be it the market or the other businesses."

In this, everyone seems to be in agreement. Cimperman says West Side Market vendors have told him maintaining some amount of free parking time is important, because for some of them, "up to 30% of their business are individuals who come there on food assistance." Furthermore, the councilman also assures that Mayor Jackson is on the same page in terms of affordability: "[He] has been very clear that this is not downtown parking—meaning, if the NCAA Championships come here, we're not going to be charging $50 per car. It's something that's going to be affordable."

Much more contentious is how the resulting revenue is going to be distributed. The combined lot comprises two separate lots: the smaller Hicks lot, located directly behind many of the Ohio City businesses and restaurants, and the larger West Side Market lot. Silliman tells Scene revenue generated from the latter lot is earmarked for parking bonds and "must be sent to the bond trustee," under the terms of a 2006 agreement.

The Hicks Lot, however, is another story. Because it was purchased with Community Development Block Grant funds, what the City does with the revenue is much more flexible. In fact, Silliman says they "intend to apply net revenues from the Hicks portion of the consolidated lot to West Side Market capital and operating needs."

McNulty, however, would like to see this non-bond-dedicated revenue be used as a tool for economic development, a way to sustain both the West Side Market itself and the surrounding areas. "Half goes to the West Side Market for physical improvements, basically to improve both the physical structure of the market and to market it, brand it, promote it, etc.," he says. "And the other half of the money stays in the MDIC [Market District Improvement Corporation], and goes to improving the neighborhood."

According to Silliman, this scenario is hampered by existing legislation. "We cannot legally split Market parking lot net revenues with a private entity because the Ohio Constitution specifically prohibits sharing municipal revenues with a private organization."

Moreover, McNulty isn't convinced that having the City of Cleveland oversee this new combined lot is the best course of action. He'd rather see the MDIC manage the parking. "They've done a brilliant job cleaning the streets, having ambassadors out, painting over graffiti, walking people to their cars," he says. "They've done a tremendous job improving the neighborhood."

Silliman says this also isn't an option. "The net revenues from the main lot are pledged to bond repayments," he says. "The net revenues from the Hicks lot are public moneys, not private moneys. Moreover, a report prepared by Ohio City prior to the Market Centennial urged the City to make the West Side Market self-sufficient. Allocating the Hicks lot net revenues to Market capital and operating needs furthers this purpose."

How the parking charges and revenue dissemination shake out is still up in the air—and out of all the changes, neither clarity nor implementation are likely anytime soon. "There will be no charge [for parking] until the [construction] project is done," Cimperman says. "My gut is it's an 11 to 12 month construction project, meaning we won't even be thinking about fees for parking until spring of 2017."

Still, there's anxiety around when tenants will have a concrete idea of how to plan for 2016 from a financial and employment standpoint. Whitaker in particular says if the Market hours and day changes go through, they'd have to hire more people. "My full-time staff is working 40 hours plus overtime already now with our current hours," he says.

To some, this uncertainty is exacerbated by a lack of communication. "I'm pretty open to any changes," says Emma Beno, owner of the Pork Chop Shop. "The only thing I really feel strongly about the changes is there should be a better open discussion on them, and less us finding out through the newspaper. I pretty much don't know anything that someone who doesn't read The Plain Dealer would know. We don't know any extra information."

Beno stresses that any friction isn't necessarily a City of Cleveland vs. tenants adversarial situation—but a byproduct of the complicated nature of any proposed changes. "Like anything else, when you're discussing really major changes, you're going to have some very opposing opinions," she says. "And that's going to cause friction between anybody. That would cause friction between a brother and a sister, or a mother and a father.

"It doesn't have to do with the fact that they're the city and we're the tenants. It's just that these are major topics that are going to take a bit of time to really work out all the details and get the best options for the market and the neighborhood in general, to make sure that...we do the best job of accommodating everybody."

A desire to have input into these changes informs why McNulty and a small group of Ohio City business owners and other stakeholders have been meeting for the past year on their own separate, independent proposal which addresses both the potential parking lot changes and future revenue distribution.

"As a group, [we] have invested tens of millions of our own money in the neighborhood, have spent many, many years of our lives living and working—and playing!—here, and employ many hundreds of people in the Ohio City neighborhood," McNulty says. "All three aspects of our involvement in Ohio City would be directly and tremendously impacted by decisions made in City Hall without any of our input whatsoever."

According to him, their group has also been dogged by a lack of communication: Once the city caught wind of these meetings, McNulty says Silliman "reached out and said, 'Hey, we want to have a meeting of neighborhood leaders.' So we all got together at the Ohio City Incorporated office. It was folks from inside the market and outside the market, business leaders. That was meeting number one. Ken said, 'Hey, the discussion starts now—we want to be transparent, we want to work with you.'"

However, according to McNulty, there have been only two meetings since that initial one with Silliman. ("Despite requests" for additional ones, he notes.) One meeting involved West Side Market business owners, while another—separate—gathering was with Ohio City business owners. "We were all perplexed as to why, [because] the conversation was very much collaborative with both groups," McNulty says. "We all agree that what's best for one side of the market wall is best for the other side of the market wall," McNulty says. "And when we all discussed afterwards, the two groups were told very different stories."

In response, Silliman says, "Sam sought a meeting with the City for the express purpose of reversing our decision regarding the Hicks Lot net revenues. We declined to meet on this purpose. That said, City officials are willing to meet with Sam and any other interested merchants at any time to discuss any other aspects (e.g., parking rates) of the operation of the new consolidated parking lot."

And as for the reason for the separate interviews? According to Silliman, "Councilman Cimperman asked us to meet with each constituency—the Market tenants, the West 25th merchants, Saint Emeric Roman Catholic Church—according to a schedule, and we followed that schedule."

As a business owner who's been involved in the Ohio City neighborhood for over 20 years—and has been both witness to and a partial cause of its explosive growth—McNulty understands more than most the complexities involved with all of the proposed changes. "We all benefit from a more vibrant neighborhood," he says. "It just so happens that the businesses inside the market have the city as a landlord, whereas outside the market it's the private sector.

"My only concern is that we do what's best for the neighborhood," he adds. "I want to do what's best for both the residents and the business owners of Ohio City."

What other solutions might there be to alleviate the parking crunch?

One option might be using the Lutheran Hospital parking lot down the street, which tend to empty out at night, for overflow. "Lutheran has been very good about working with the neighborhood and offering up their lots for events," McNulty says. "And they've indicated they're willing to talk about some kind of a shared-use. During peak hours for breweries on the street would be off-hours for Lutheran, let's say. If we could work out some way that works for everybody, all of a sudden we access so much parking, and the neighborhood has plenty of surplus."

(In response to a query about the possibility of this, a Lutheran Hospital spokeswoman told Scene, "Our parking lots at Lutheran Hospital are currently used for patients, visitors and employees to ensure they have convenient access to the hospital. While we continue to make our lots available on a case-by-case basis to Ohio City, Inc. for select nights and weekends, our focus remains on the parking needs of our patients and visitors.")

Another option being talked about is turning on the Market District parking meters on weekends. To do so would require special legislation to go up for a vote via Cleveland City Council, Cimperman says, but that would free up 150 more spots on the weekend, traditionally a busy time for the area surrounding the Market, since meters typically turn over faster. This is also something in the works: According to Cimperman, there's "a draft of legislation" for this proposal.

However, McNair points out that "we're never going to park our way out of that problem" of having too few spaces. "There's never going to be enough parking for everyone to park." As a result, he and Ohio City Inc. are "comprehensively looking at different ways to better connect people to the Market." This includes collaborating with the RTA to implement a discounted pass program for Ohio City workers, so they can utilize the nearby W. 25 - Ohio City Rapid Station or one of the nine bus routes in the neighborhood. (This program looks likely to appear in the spring, Cimperman says.) Bike accessibility is another option; in fact, McNair says the city planning commission just adopted a proposal to place the city's first two-way protected bike lane on Lorain Avenue, which would link the Market District more directly to downtown.

Above all, the West Side Market changes are representative of a cultural shift not just internally, but also within the neighborhood and society as a whole. If there's cold comfort, however, it's that public markets all across the country are navigating how to transition into the 21st century.

Take Cincinnati's Findlay Market, Ohio's oldest continuously operating public market. Like the West Side Market, it's proud of its tradition and history; in fact, Communications and Program Director Karen Kahle says they have a sixth-generation merchant whose family has had a presence there since 1855. However, Findlay Market is also located in what Kahle calls a "shifting sands" neighborhood (Over-the-Rhine) and faces parking challenges.

In recent years, Findlay Market extended its hours into the evening, and added things such as live music and a seasonal weekend beer garden. But after it decided to add Sunday hours in 2009—a move Kahle said "had a lot of resistance" from merchants—it ended up being an incredible boon for business.

"You would not find a merchant in our market who would give up Sundays," she says. "It's our second-busiest day. During our peak season, eight, nine thousand people come through here on a Sunday. It's also pretty amazing in that our Sunday hours are 10 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.], and our Saturday hours are 8 [p.m.] to 6 [a.m.]. So in four fewer hours, we get eight, nine thousand shopping visits, where a busy Saturday is like ten to twelve [thousand]. So we probably, per hour, have more shoppers on Sunday now.

"Some of the merchants say they make as much on Sunday as on Saturday, in four fewer hours," she adds.

Will changes to the West Side Market reap similar dividends here in Cleveland? That's the million dollar question.

"I think there's no way to know [if the changes are good] unless you try," Sheppard says. "They could be good; they could be bad. But if you don't try something, how are you going to know? I've done plenty of things with our food truck that ended up failing, but now I know a lot better now than I did before of things to pick and choose from, and all that stuff. So it's a gamble. And people don't want to take risks.

"I guess if you don't try something, you'll never know."

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