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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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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