Sam Allard / Scene
The 2021 Cleveland mayoral candidates (minus Sandra Williams) at a forum in Tremont's Lincoln Park, (8/24/21).
After multiple power outages at the West Side Market in recent weeks, complaints about the city's management of the iconic public facility at the corner of W. 25th Street and Lorain Avenue have crescendoed once again.
Vendors, angered by Cleveland's poor management, have been calling for City Hall to relinquish control to a nonprofit operator, whom they believe would be more invested in improving conditions at the market and would more efficiently respond to concerns. Kerry McCormack, who represents Ohio City on City Council, has advocated for a nonprofit manager at the market as well.
It's election season, so the issue has naturally found its way into the mayoral race. Monday evening, the seven candidates for Cleveland mayor gathered at Tremont's Lincoln Park for a forum hosted by three area council members: Ward 3's McCormack, Ward 14's Jasmin Santana, and Ward 15's Jenny Spencer.
The brisk 80-minute event featured six questions sourced from residents, and covered much of the territory that has previously been covered in televised debates, neighborhood forums and Ideastream's After Jackson podcast, including the candidates' views on tax abatement policy, government transparency and Cleveland Public Power.
The first question, however, was about the West Side Market. Councilman Kerry McCormack noted that a version of the question had been submitted by a number of Ward 3 residents, and he invited the candidates to state their position on city management — should Cleveland continue managing the property or seek a nonprofit operator? — before discussing their vision for its future. Here's how they responded.
Cleveland *SHOULD* hand the West Side Market over to a nonprofit operator
-Justin Bibb: Bibb believes absolutely
that the market needs a new nonprofit manager, and noted that he was aligned with McCormack in that respect. "I'm not an expert on everything," he said, "and it's important that we bring experts inside City Hall who understand how to manage a public market." Bibb believes that the WSM is a "gem of an asset" and that a nonprofit operator would most effectively preserve it as such.
-Sandra Williams: Williams said she has been talking about a nonprofit model for a long time. She stressed the city's poor performance as a manager and the scarcity of public funds, given the slew of expensive problems the city faces. "If we make it a nonprofit, we can take advantage of other funding sources that are out there." (This is a reference to the Cleveland Foundation and others, who will not contribute resources to the market unless the city relinquishes control.)
Cleveland *should PROBABLY* hand the West Side Market over to a nonprofit operator:
-Basheer Jones: Jones said he was "definitely open" to the idea. "Leadership is about working with people and listening to people," he said. "And the tenants are very concerned that they are unable to grow and thrive there." Jones said, among other things, that he liked the idea of cultural programming in the vicinity that he's seen in other cities. He said it was clear that a change of some kind needed to happen, and if bringing in a nonprofit manager was the best change, so be it. But he said foisting a solution on the Market that didn't come from the people wasn't what he intended to do.
-Kevin Kelley: Kelley said he was "completely open to the idea" and personally liked it, but that he was unwilling to commit to a new model Monday night. He said the WSM was "too great to fail" and that the city had to stop trying to fix the market one problem at a time. "We need to look at the entire capital operation." He likened the WSM to the Airport — "the city owns the airport, but we don't do the concessions or the parking because that's not our thing, we don't know how" — and said a nonprofit operator made "perfect sense." He just didn't want to irresponsibly commit at this point.
Cleveland *should NOT* hand the West Side Market over to a nonprofit operator:
-Ross DiBello: New managers and more staff are required at the market, but they should remain under city control, DiBello said. (He said this was the case with Cleveland Public Power as well.) "Cities across the country operate public markets well. It is very doable. We can do anything we set out minds to." DiBello said listening to vendors was paramount, but that he's more confident city employees would have the merchants and customers as their top priority. "A nonprofit operator may be in it for the right reasons or they may not be."
-Dennis Kucinich: Not a chance,
Kucinich said. "I'm running for mayor to manage the market." He argued that what the city was really looking for was a mayor, someone who could manage city departments and assets without the need for pricey consultants at every turn. At the market, "what we need to do is cut vendors' rents and make it possible for people all over Cleveland to get a card that says I'm a Clevelander and get a break on their food." He painted a picture of the market resurrected as the "center of the city in many ways," with a broader merchant mix ("more organics"), music and art.
-Zack Reed: Reed said the change should be akin to the change at City Hall. New leadership at the top of the organization, (a new mayor), will necessarily lead to changes in every aspect of the organization. He views the mismanagement at the WSM as an echo of mismanagement elsewhere in the city — in public safety, housing and education — and believes that with a new mayor, better city management can be achieved.
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