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Cimperman agrees that the city has historically neglected the market, but says that he's committed to giving the venue more attention. "For years, the mayor's office and council simply ignored the needs of the vendors, and their attitude was, 'You can do what you want,'" he says. "The city is not doing a good enough job. We need to do better."
Still, many vendors remain deeply skeptical about the city's proposed changes and ability to carry them out. Those shortened six-month leases are one flashpoint of controversy.
"Local foods are absolutely a good thing," says Melissa DeCaro, the third-generation owner of DeCaro Produce. "But if we struggle all through the winter, they should have to struggle with us."
Yet vendors are missing an opportunity by not embracing local growers, Cimperman says: Focusing on local foods could help them be more profitable.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, local-food sales through all marketing channels in the U.S. were estimated to be $4.8 billion in 2008 and projected to surpass $7 billion by the end of 2012.
A 2010 study paid for by the Cleveland Foundation and written by Maryland economist Michael Shuman shows that Northeast Ohio purchases about one percent of its food from local farmers. Upping that number to 25 percent could create 27,000 new jobs. The West Side Market could be a key link to make that happen.
"Customers are asking us about local foods," says Zuniga-Eadie. "We need to educate people and show them the options out there."
Zuniga-Eadie says that the city's local-foods marketing campaign, which will include an emblem on stands to identify local options, will be rolled out by fall.
A Farmer's Dilemma
Yet drawing small local farmers into the market might not be as easy as it sounds. Most growers are used to selling produce at farmers markets for four-hour stints, not staffing a busy market stand for 10-hours days. Farmers' main priority, after all, is trying to coax crops out of the fickle earth, not hawking heads of lettuce; and many are weekend warriors who juggle farm work with regular full-time jobs. Time — and the volume of goods they can realistically supply — are two real barriers to signing on to a major retail operation.
So instead of setting up shop at the West Side Market, many area growers have found their niche in farmers markets. The options have exploded in recent years: currently there are 11 farmers markets in Cleveland — up from two a few years ago — and 52 across the region.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, dozens of local farmers and food purveyors gather in Lincoln Park in Tremont for the Tremont Farmers Market. The seasonal event has blossomed since its 2006 debut; a recent market day drew more than 1,500 shoppers.
Molly Murray is a Cleveland Heights native who returned to Northeast Ohio in her 20s to start Erie's Edge Farm, an urban, sustainable farm spread across five lots in Ohio City.
"I moved to do this because I knew urban farming was happening here and wanted to be part of it," says Murray, who also runs a Community Supported Agriculture program and has a passion for bringing fresh produce to low-income residents.
Murray would love the chance to sell her produce at the West Side Market. Yet she's accutely aware of the difficulties. She says that any lease arrangement would have to be structured to support her business.
"I could see it working if we formed a co-op and had a collective presence," she says.
Dave Divoky of Maple Valley Sugarbush and Farms in Geauga County, who opened a stand here a year ago, says that recruiting farmers to the market will be challenging.
"Many of them are part-timers who have a farm stand in front of their house or go to the markets on weekends," says Divoky, a third-generation farmer who maples and raises fruits and vegetables on his 36-acre farm in Hamden Township east of Chardon. "For them to commit to a venue downtown, it's just not possible. "
Of course, Divoky and his wife are an example of how it can work. The couple used to spend their time traveling to multiple farmers markets each week. But last year they made the decision to concentrate their efforts on opening a stand at the market. The fledgling venture has opened up new opportunities, he says.