Makeover Melee

The city wants to modernize the West Side Market, but some vendors are bracing for a fight

The West Side Market — the high church of old-school Cleveland — is edging in on a significant birthday. The region's famed hub of ethnic culture and cuisine marks its centennial anniversary in 2012. To celebrate, city officials and development gurus are gearing up for a makeover.

In April, Mayor Frank Jackson announced the formation of a West Side Market Commission. The group is charged with assessing the market's operations and identifying potential areas of improvement. The process, city officials say, is about repositioning the market for the next hundred years.

But if you scratch away the pomp and lip service, an old squabble is brewing about the future of the institution. Over the last ten years there's been momentum to push the market into the 21st century and sync up its old-world charm with the pace of modern-day Cleveland. But according to some longtime vendors, an upset of the status quo could rob the market of its cherished vibe and dent its beloved low prices.

The main issue on the table is scheduling. The market is open only four days a week, and on two of those days — Monday and Wednesday — the stands close by 4 p.m., leaving downtown workers little opportunity to shop. The place is shut down entirely on Sundays, traditionally one of the biggest days for shopping.

The hours of operation have remained unchanged since the market first opened back in 1912. The off days were balanced by the Central Market, which operated on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Though the Central Market was plowed in 1992 to make room for the Gateway complex, the West Side Market never adjusted its hours to compensate. By continuing to stick with the traditional hours, the market misses out on a significant slice of business, some argue.

"Say you were going to open a public market today. You would not go into a meeting with a potential investor and say, 'I have a great idea: We'll open it Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday," says Eric Wobser, executive director of the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation. "So should hours be on the table in this conversation? I think they absolutely should be."

But the increased attention has some vendors nervous. Market insiders are wary of outside influence, particularly from City Hall. They say their relationship with the city historically has been strained over issues such as parking and maintenance, and they worry the commission's findings will result in bureaucrats jamming proposals down their throats.

"We're the golden child of this area. We're called the economic engine," says one longtime vendor, who asked not to be identified. "And now they're going to tell us how to do our jobs right? I got to scratch my head at that."

The potential payoff for extending operating hours stretches beyond the walls of the market. The site already pulls a substantial following to Ohio City on market days: By the city's most recent estimate, a million people visit each year. But when the stands are shuttered, the neighborhood is a ghost town. Members of the community feel if the market were open more, surrounding businesses would feel the effect.

But calls for extended hours are also coming from within. With over 100 independent vendors selling everything from pork to pastries, consensus is a long shot. But on the issue of schedule changes, the house seems divided into two camps with two differing business plans. The first consists of long-established vendors who normally deal in produce, meats, or cheeses. The second is a newer crop of vendors offering prepared food. Unlike the older crowd, who do enough bulk business to turn a profit, these prepared-food vendors would greatly benefit from an uptick in hours.

"I do think we're kind of robbing the community and not really providing the best service by not at least having some evening hours," says vendor Jeff Campbell. A member of the market's young blood, he began five years ago with Campbell's Popcorn Shop and today owns an additional two stands. Customers are constantly telling him the market needs to get with the times and switch to a new schedule, he says.

Ed Meister of Meister Foods is a 32-year veteran of the market. Unlike some of his brethren in the old guard, Meister is open to discussion about extended hours.

But Sundays are a no-go.

"Those of us who work 14 hours on Friday and 14 hours on Saturday, we're not working Sunday," he says.

Most of the market's stands are manned by owners who are already stretched to their limits, Meister explains. Extend the hours past a reasonable point, and vendors will have to hire employees, which defeats the whole point of the market. From his side of the counter, he sees a desire in customers to connect with the proprietor of each booth.

"People come to the market, they want to see the owner behind the counter or the owner's family," he says. "They come here because it's not a Heinen's or a Giant Eagle."

Another of the market's key selling points is its generally low prices, a result of low overhead costs. But if hours are radically extended and owners are forced to add employees, increased operating costs could hike food prices.

No matter where vendors fall on the issue of extending hours, many agree that before discussing a new schedule, the city needs to enforce the one that's already in place. According to the terms of the lease vendors sign, the stands are required to be open when the market is. But that regulation isn't policed, and many vendors open whenever they please.

Market management admits its enforcement has been lax. As part of the upcoming overhaul, the city plans to review the terms of the contracts and do a better job holding vendors accountable for following the fine print, according to Michael Cox, director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Properties Department, which oversees the market.

But vendors say the lack of enforcement is symptomatic of the city's general indifference toward the market — an attitude that leaves many feeling like ignored stepchildren. That feeling is somewhat justified, says councilman Joe Cimperman, who represents the market's neighborhood.

"The city could be doing a better job. There are systemic inefficiencies, there are sustainability sins, and the market vendors are frustrated," he says. "Maximize that by ten years, and they get mad."

The mayor's office says the commission will work directly with vendors, and no decisions will be made without the group's input. Nonetheless, some vendors say they feel like the course is already set.

"We really have a serious push by downtown for this, even though they haven't come out publicly," one vendor says. "They're building their complete resources to push us in this direction, and it could ruin us."

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