The Next Century

The West Side Market is Rooted in Tradition and That's Part of the Problem. Five Big Changes Lie Ahead for this Cleveland Institution

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It's a beautiful, crisp spring day at the West Side Market. The sun is shining, the leaves are budding on the trees and everyone's happy. Except those two guys fighting over parking, leaning out the windows of their cars and spewing vitriol at each other.

"Asshole!," a middle-aged guy in a minivan yells at a pickup-truck driver who cut him off.

Welcome to Saturday morning at Cleveland's venerable, 102-year-old public market, where parking problems are so pronounced, grown men are having fits of road rage.

The market has always been busy on Saturdays. Yet recently, thanks to the popularity of this institution and businesses on West 25th Street, the neighborhood has a parking crunch like, um, a real city. It's not uncommon to see cars circling the lot in an endless shuffle, then returning to the street to look for a spot somewhere else. Or, one would surmise, they head back to the freeway and hop on back to wherever they came from.

In short, the market's success has become its problem. Yet addressing the challenges has proved to be elusive so far. The market's greatest strength – its history as a local institution, part of our shared heritage as Clevelanders – also makes it a place that's stubbornly slow to embrace change. And while no one wants it to become a cheesy tourist trap selling T-shirts and tchotchkes, no one wants it to be irrelevant, either.

"Why change?" some would argue. The market is fine. It attracts a million visitors a year and vendors say sales are still rising in the wake of the centennial. That sentiment overlooks the fact that there are plenty of challenges here, as well. Beyond the parking problem, which vendors say is No. 1, the buildings have a backlog of repairs. And then there are the shoppers who bitch about rotten produce, and plenty of others who say the hours are inconvenient. Others ask: Why aren't there more local foods?

That last frustration came to a head recently in a blog post entitled "Cleveland West Side Market: The Dinosaur in the Room" that was shared a gazillion times on Facebook.

"Yes, the market is a great place for cheap produce and affordable meat options," wrote Jason Burchaski on 52 Weeks of Cleveland. "However, the market is stuck in a time warp, minus a couple new specialty shops and those who choose to sell organic produce, local produce, and farm-raised meats. The problem is the latter are few and far between, with many vendors selling absolute garbage that might have fallen off the truck. I say it is time the market cleans up before it goes the way of the dinosaur."

Eric Wobser, current executive director of Ohio City Incorporated (OCI), a nonprofit group whose mission is to guide the area's redevelopment, who just announced he's taken a job as Sandusky's city manager and will begin his new position as soon as next month, agrees changes are needed.

"I'm always worried about the market's long-term future," he admits. "I think the vendors realize they can take advantage of being an iconic, historic place, hold onto what's great about the past without being beholden to it, and transition to a successful future."

Embracing change may be what helps the West Side Market enjoy another successful 100 years. Here are five changes to look out for in Cleveland's beloved public market.

Fixing the parking crunch

City officials are working on a plan to consolidate and redevelop the West Side Market lots and probably charge for parking. Details of the plan could be announced this year.

The parking problem at the market is not new. There are two lots here, the main lot and the Hick's lot, both of them free. The city, which owns the market, proposed a plan to install ticket booths and charge a modest fee of two dollars per hour a few years ago. Spaces would turn over more quickly, and shoppers could park 90 minutes for free.

Yet the idea didn't go over so well. The vendors' association, which has a lease on the parking lot that expires in August, shot down the plan in rather dramatic, public fashion.

"We've lasted 100 years without their intervention," Vince Bertonaschi, an old-school butcher who's been a market veteran for decades, told the Plain Dealer. "They're not interested in helping us last the way we are. We are the West Side Market that won the awards because we're still an old-fashioned market. If you want to turn this into a concession stand, then tell us, and maybe we should pack up and go home."

Bertonaschi, known as a bulldog who helped get the city's attention, was afraid charging for parking would keep customers away. Yet under the current system, visitors who grab a pint of beer on West 25th can park all day for free – without buying so much as a smokie. So it would seem that having free parking isn't helping vendors much, either.

Bertonaschi is no longer president of the vendors' association. While the new president, Tommy Boutros, also doesn't support charging for parking, he's less adversarial and sees the writing on the wall. "No one wants to pay, but it's not up to us," he says.

Other market vendors that Scene spoke with say paid parking is a fine idea. "We've been fighting for traditions that aren't necessarily good traditions," says Bob Holcepl, owner of City Roast. "I think it would be okay to charge people something for parking."

City officials are now moving ahead on a plan to consolidate the two parking lots and close part of West 24th Street to improve the traffic flow. This project would create at least 150 additional parking spaces, possibly more. The city secured $500,000 from the Ohio EPA for green infrastructure and has committed $1.2 million from its own budget. The total cost is about $2.9 million, and officials are now looking for other sources of money.

As of now, city officials remain mum on whether they'll charge for parking. Wobser also says nothing's finalized, but hints at changes ahead: "We're working out rates and how it will be managed, but there has to be some mechanism to turn over parking. I think you'll see a lot of changes over the next 12 to 24 months that are forward thinking."

Local beer entrepreneur Sam McNulty, who owns Market Garden Brewery and other venues on the street, says charging for parking is a no-brainer. If the parking costs something, then spaces are more likely to turn over – thus resulting in thousands more visitors.

"Then we won't have a parking problem; we'll have a problem with people trying to get into the market. The bottleneck will be the people trying to get in," he says. "I haven't heard talk of an addition to the market yet, but who knows what the future holds."

In the long term, both vendors and OCI agree that the solution to Ohio City's parking woes is encouraging more people to walk or ride their bikes, as well as a structured parking garage. There are no plans for a garage now, but Wobser says it will likely happen eventually, possibly as part of a mixed-use development along West 25th.

Marked market improvements

The city, which has spent more than $3 million on the market since the centennial, is also moving forward on additional improvements. This year, the city spent $1.5 million to install a new grease trap and do other plumbing work, make roof repairs and upgrade the restrooms. Vendors are pleased, since plumbing has been an issue for a long time.

The city also installed new LED lighting throughout the market hall, which, coupled with the cleaning that took place after last year's fire, has given the place a bright new shine.

"Some of these improvements are not visible to everyday customers, but they really impact vendors and day-to-day operations," says Amanda Dempsey, manager of markets for the City of Cleveland. "Other improvements, like the renovation of the public restrooms and the new LED lighting, have made a very noticeable difference."

Things weren't always so peachy keen. Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman told Scene two years ago that the market had been poorly managed (he did not return a phone call seeking comment for this article). "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 said at the time. "The city is not doing a good enough job. We need to do better."

The city's relationship with vendors has improved. "They've been extremely responsive to us this year," says Emma Beno, co-owner of the Pork Chop Shop and secretary of the association. "When they closed the market for a few days to put in a huge grease trap, no one even complained about it. They said, 'All right, that's cool.'"

These improvements are essential, but it's clear that there's plenty more work to be done. A 2011 report issued by OCI in advance of the centennial identified about $7 million in needed upgrades. Right now, the city is working through high priority repairs. Additional work, such as renovating an unused area on the second level into a demonstration or test kitchen, is still part of a longer-term vision.

"There's not an active capital campaign for the market right now, but there is one in development," says Wobser, who expects the city to release a long-term plan for implementing "catalytic improvements" to the market sometime later this year.

A new sheriff in town

Another noticeable change at the market is who's running it. Dempsey, the 34-year-old manager, previously worked for OCI. She helped organize the centennial and authored the 2011 report outlining changes needed to ensure the market's success. She's earned a reputation as a straight shooter, someone the vendors know that they can work with.

So far, Dempsey seems to have earned the trust of both vendors and business owners. Beno describes her as a manager that is "helpful" and follows through on commitments.

"She's a force to be reckoned with, in a very positive way," adds McNulty. "If anybody can work with the councilman and vendors in a very collaborative way, she's the right person. She can bring everybody together, move the conversation forward."

Vendors say the bad produce problem is one example. For years, customers have complained of a few "bad apple" vendors who sell rotten produce, taking items from behind the shelf and slipping them in your bag. By the time you notice, you're already home. Dempsey has apparently stepped up efforts to remedy this longstanding issue.

"Amanda, for the first time in 25 years, has aggressively addressed [the problem of bad produce]," says Holcepl. "She had a complaint from a customer, went to that stand, went through the produce and shut them down. The message has gotten sent."

In conversations with Scene, other vendors stated that the problem, which they say has been going on largely unaddressed for many years, is finally getting some real attention.

In terms of her priorities, Dempsey says that she is working to enhance customer service and follow up on customer feedback; facilitate basic physical improvements such as plumbing upgrades to keep the market in working order; respond to vendors' service requests quickly; and attract more locally grown and raised food products.

"It's important that the market continues to be one the best public markets in the country," she says. "We want it to continue to attract new customers, to continue to build on its strong customer base."

One of the things that Dempsey has done is simply to enforce tenants' existing leases. In the past, many tenants would not open their stands on Mondays because it's often a slow day. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since customers who wanted the full market experience would avoid shopping on that day. However, their lease requires them to be open when the market is open: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.

On a recent Monday visit to the West Side Market, this Scene reporter noticed that nearly every stand was open. "I have been taking attendance," Dempsey says.

A fresh crop of leaders

The vendors' association board is also being run by a new, younger guard. Boutros is a 30-year-old produce vendor whose father worked at the market, and Beno is 24. The change is evident not simply in the ages of the board members, but in their attitudes. When they meet with the city, they're not singing kumbaya, but they are talking.

"There's no aggression in the room at all, and the attitude between us has changed a lot," says Beno. "A lot of vendors are resistant to change, especially in a building that hasn't changed in a long time. But the fact is, we never needed to change, and now we need to change."

One problem in the past, she says, was that the board was run by older vendors who didn't represent everyone. For instance, not all vendors are opposed to charging for parking, but the leadership came out swinging when that idea was first proposed.

"These are rough-and-tumble guys," says Beno. "You put them in a position that they're not familiar with, with high-up city employees who are very bureaucratic and don't say much in a lot of words, and these guys just don't know how to play the city game."

Beno apparently does play the game. She ruffled feathers a few years ago when she complained about the stance the association took on the parking problem and earned her share of resentment. When she and her partner, Alexia Rodriguez, put a blue equality sign on their stand, a few of the vendors asked them to take it down.

Yet the affable Beno shrugs off the incident; she stood up to them and they backed off. "I've been working here since I was 14 – so it's not like I just walked in here," she says.

A new approach is needed, Beno says. The older generation of vendors had become so used to being ignored by the city, they often assumed an adversarial stance out of habit. "They were angry with the city in the past because they'd asked for things and didn't get them," she says. "These guys had been duct-taping things together for many decades."

One example of the vendors' proactive approach is that they've been working closely with the city to ensure that employees park off site, freeing up parking for customers. Yet don't expect the association to give up the fight on paid parking that easily. The group is looking at other solutions and preparing for discussions with city officials.

Diversifying the product mix

The growing interest in locally grown and raised produce and meat is evidenced by the explosive growth of farmers markets. Yet even as the market for local food has grown, the West Side Market has staunchly remained the same, with just a few local products.

Many vendors say this is a problem. "I think the market as a whole is missing the boat when it comes to local foods," says Gary Thomas of Ohio City Pasta, a 25-year-old company that makes all of its products from scratch right in the neighborhood.

There are many vendors who carry local food, from Anne Marie's Dairy to Basketeria. Yet most of the market's produce is trucked in from outside the area, a lot of the meat that's sold here isn't from Northeast Ohio, and only one stand has grass-fed beef.

That, too, is starting to change. The new stand Rooted in Cleveland is one example of a local produce vendor that is now selling its products at the market. It hasn't been easy, especially given the paucity of product that was available this past winter, but stand owner Travis Alley says that he's developed a loyal following over the past year.

"It was kind of amazing, even in the depths of winter when all we had was rutabaga and turnips, people stuck with us," says Alley, who represents many urban farmers in Cleveland at his stand, such as Maggie's Farm in the Stockyards neighborhood. "I've been overwhelmed with the support we've gotten from the community at large."

Alley and his wife, Felicia Marie Alley, are planning to launch a pour-over coffee stand this year with Rising Star coffee. They hope this will help them get through next winter.

Dempsey has made adding more locally grown and raised food a priority. The market now offers seasonal leases for growers that don't have enough product to be open all winter long. Other local vendors include Maple Valley Sugarbush, Grace Brothers and Jorgensen's Apiary. The short section of the arcade is becoming a local food hub.

Inside the market, the Pork Chop Shop will soon sell exclusively local pork from New Creation Farm in Chardon. The stand owners hope to inspire others to do the same.

"It will really be farm to table for us," says co-owner Alexia Rodriguez, who will be adding charcuterie from local butcher Melissa Khoury and breaking down pigs at her stand, giving visitors a chance to learn where their food comes from.

Postscript (AKA: Why isn't it open more?)

Besides the parking, the biggest elephant in the room right now is the market's days and hours. Believe it or not, the schedule was set decades ago so that it didn't conflict with the Central Market, which was open Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Central Market, of course, burned down in 1949 – but the West Side Market has remained unchanged.

Some complain that the market's hours are impractical and don't serve customers or businesses. "The hours need to be convenient for customers, that's No. 1," says Holcepl. "I don't have enough days in the week to sell my stuff. I'd love to be open Sunday, to add another day to my schedule. I'm working at capacity now."

Other vendors disagree, saying that they already work long hours and don't want to add a day. City officials remain tight-lipped on whether the hours or days of operation could change. The city installed traffic counters on the doorways in July, Dempsey said, and after a year's worth of data has been collected, officials will analyze it and develop recommendations regarding days and hours that will best serve customers.

In general, many of the challenges that the market faces are fortunate ones – essentially, growing pains. The West Side Market is the hub of one of the city's most successful, dynamic neighborhoods, and whatever its future is, it will offer lessons for the city.

"We've gone from 30-percent vacancy to almost zero [in storefronts] and seen $200 million in investment and over 700 new jobs created in recent years," says Wobser of the surrounding Ohio City neighborhood, citing the market as one driver of that success. "These are great things for the city, the market and for the neighborhood. Managing that growth becomes a challenge, but we're committed to addressing it."

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