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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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."

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