Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Much Does That Cost? Part II: The Sudbury Farmer’s Market

If you live in Greater Sudbury, no doubt you’re well aware of the controversy which has been brewing regarding the downtown Market Square. For those who don’t know the story, let me give you a little bit of the background as to what’s going on.

Laurentian University will be building a new School of Architecture, something a majority of Sudburians are excited about. Our City Council has committed to be providing funding towards this project, along with senior levels of government. Council, however, made their funding commitment conditional upon the new School being built in the downtown. Laurentian University, whose campus is located quite a ways away from the urban core of the City, was more than eager to move forward with a downtown location for the School. In fact, they’ve looked to the successes which have been experienced by universities in Brantford and Cambridge with off-campus, downtown schools.

We’ve all been very excited about the new School of Architecture coming to Sudbury’s downtown. Laurentian University was involved in a site selection process for some time, and the public was on pins and needles waiting for an announcement of the University’s preferred site. OK, maybe we weren’t all pins and needles, but there was certainly a mounting interest in hearing about LU’s preferred site. Especially when rumours began to circulate in the community about Laurentian eyeing the downtown Market Square – the current home of Sudbury’s one and only farmer’s market.

Downtown's Market Square

Market Square was developed by the City back in 2000 from an old rail storage building, with the express purpose of housing the farmer’s market. Previously, the farmer’s market was an entirely outdoor affair, happening on the weekends in a downtown parking lot. The building itself offers ample space for indoor market vendors, and has covered space outside for farmers to sell their wares. There’s also a bit of public square in front of the building, with a raised stage for performers, and seating for people to watch or just hang out on. We don’t have a lot of good public gathering spaces in the City; the Market Square itself is by far the best, and most used.

It’s really a very impressive space, all in all, in my opinion, and the location is a pretty darn good one. Sudbury’s downtown isn’t all that big, being boxed in by hard edges on three sides (the railway tracks on the west and south sides, and an impressive cliff face along Brady on the eastern side; only the northern side is somewhat open, and even then, once you’re above Ste-Anne Street, it no longer feels like you’re in the downtown). Market Square is located flush up against the rail way line on the western side of the downtown, although mixed commercial uses continue a ways westward along Elm Street on the other side of the tracks.

There’s also a fairly large parking lot on the Market Square site. Now, if you’re not familiar with Sudbury, you won’t understand the significance of this parking lot. Here in Sudbury, there exists a perception that the downtown is under-serviced with parking. I have to say that I don’t see it that way; to me it looks like we have plenty of parking, and if anything, I think it’s time to get rid of a number of our surface parking lots and create some pedestrian-friendly public spaces. But nevertheless I have to acknowledge the existence of the perception that there’s a lack of parking in the downtown.

Site Made Public

Back in August, the City sent a letter to the farmer’s market vendors, and a meeting was held. At that meeting, it was finally revealed that Laurentian had chosen Market Square as the preferred site for the new School of Architecture. Vendors were, to say the least, unhappy with this news, as many have poured so much into making the farmer’s market a success at Market Square. At the meeting, it was discussed that LU would entertain sharing the Market Square site with the farmer’s market, and there was even some suggestion that the building itself might be kept.

Well, when the news was made public in Greater Sudbury, everybody it seems had an opinion. The School of Architecture Vs. The Farmer’s Market has been the talk of the town. Laurentian eventually ended up going to Council to discuss the future of Market Square. You see, the City owns the land. Laurentian was told by Council that Council wasn’t inclined to make a decision until the issue of relocating the farmer’s market was adequately addressed. Playing hardball, LU made it clear to Council that development plans for the new School would fall apart if the site couldn’t be secured by the fall of this year.

So, the pressure is now on. Market Square vendors aren’t happy. Council finds itself in a very awkward spot. LU continues to push ahead with its plans, and refuses to publicly disclose which other sites in the downtown were looked at. By failing to talk about alternatives, LU is burning through a lot of good will with the public. However, both Greater Sudbury’s downtown development corporation and Business Improvement Area have come out in support of LU taking over Market Square, perhaps because they’re concerned that Laurentian might walk away if they don’t get this site. Without any other alternatives identified, I am certainly concerned that they’ll walk, and the downtown will miss out on the opportunity to host the new School.

"Public Consultation"

But I’ll tell you this: even supporters of a downtown school have become miffed at LU’s approach to securing a site. Last week, the City hosted a public forum, ostensibly to discuss the future of Market Square. I attended that forum, along with hundreds of other members in my community. There were two rows of drawings posted which people could talk about. The row on the right showed concept drawings of the new School of Architecture and how it would fit onto the Market Square site. There were some people from Laurentian University there to talk about the drawings, but no one was wearing name tags, and it was unclear whether anyone was actually speaking on behalf of the University.

The row of drawings on the left depicted a number of locations for the new home of the farmer’s market. The City was handing out a questionnaire for feedback on these proposed new locations.

What was missing from this exercise, of course, was any discussion about keeping the farmer’s market at Market Square. It looked to everybody as if moving the farmer’s market is a done deal, never mind any additional public input. All that needs to be determined now is where the new home for the farmer’s market is going to be.

Putting aside the process which has led us to this predicament, it certainly does seem to me that Laurentian will eventually gain access to the Market Square site for the new School. I think it’s regrettable that they’re putting our Council in an awkward position, but the University has played hardball, and it looks like there isn’t any other alternative.

Which now leads me to costs.

Valuation

There are a number of issues related to costs which have been brought up by the public throughout this process, and it appears to me that no good answers have been given. First, there’s the cost of the Market Square site itself. Apparently, Laurentian University has assessed the stie, and determined it be worth slightly less than a million dollars. A number of Councillors have expressed that they think that value is really low. The cost of purchase is important, because LU will have to pay fair market value to buy the site from the City, as the City has made it clear that their contribution won’t consist of land value. I’m not sure that LU had anticipated that kind of reaction from the City, but here we are.

The public wants to know what the site is worth. I’m actually less interested in that, as I’m sure that the matter will eventually be worked out, and whatever the value of the land is ultimately determined to be, LU will pay it.

Benefits to the Downtown

A number of different numbers about the cost of hosting the farmer’s market at Market Square have also been brought up. Depending on who is doing the talking, the City either loses hundreds of thousands a year hosting the farmer’s market at Market Square, or the farmer’s market is actually acting as a small-business incubator that creates jobs and wealth in our downtown. I suspect that the truth is probably somewhere in between, but the public has generally been sceptical about the idea that the farmer’s market adds a lot of value to downtown businesses.

The farmer’s market is only open two days a week – Saturday and Sunday. While most downtown businesses are open on Saturdays, the downtown is pretty hollowed out on Sundays. Given that parking is available right at the Market Square site itself, a lot of trips made by residents are single-purpose. Sure, some people like to explore the downtown after visiting the market, but many just get back in their cars and head home.

I’m still curious, though, about how much money the farmer’s market actually brings into the downtown. I don’t think anybody really knows, but wouldn’t that be a nice-to-have right now, given the on-going conversation? If the City is taking a hit keeping the market open, but downtown businesses are benefiting from increased traffic flow, well, that might be a good thing (although it’s still a subsidy from taxpayers – but one I’d be willing to continue to pay, for I sincerely believe that a healthy downtown is good for the community, and if we need to give a little right now, treat it as an investment).

Now, the new School of Architecture is supposed to bring 400 students and, what is the number now? 75 staff to the downtown? That’s a lot of people who will be brought into the downtown every day. Some believe that students don’t spend money, and the staff will get back in their cars and spend their money at Wal Mart. I think that’s pretty short-sighted, especially since these aren’t undergraduate students. I had the benefit of attending a downtown campus when I went to University (Ryerson), and I can tell you that my fellow students and I certainly made some significant contributions to the local economy (and not just at the Zanzi).

But, right now, everything is just anecdotal. I think that the public would really like to see some projections from Laurentian University regarding what the downtown can expect in terms of revenues from the new School. Can we expect a bigger return than the farmer’s market currently provides? I would think so, but I just don’t know. And I wouldn’t mind having some more information about that.

Moving Costs

And finally, if the farmer’s market is going to move from Market Square, where is it going to end up, and how much will that cost? One of the proposals which the City had produced showed the farmer’s market occupying the ground floor of an as-yet-to-be-built parking garage on Elgin Street, near the under-used CP rail station. Another conceptual drawing actually placed the market in the rail station. The public was encouraged to comment on these concepts without the benefit of any information about cost.

If the farmer’s market is going to move, guaranteed that Greater Sudbury taxpayers will be on the hook (again) for paying for the site. We put about a million dollars into Market Square 10 years ago, and now we’re going to invest an additional….how much into a farmer’s market which apparently loses money in the City every year. Again, I think taxpayers should be supporting the farmer’s market (although it would be nice if our senior levels of government could chip in and make accessing local food a priority), but at what cost? I’m certainly not at all in favour of having my tax dollars go towards building a parking garage so that drivers can have access to even more subsidized parking in the downtown.

Of course, there were other concepts presented which likely will have minimal costs. However, these concepts were largely ones where the farmer’s market would occupy an outdoor location only. Given that the majority of the current market’s vendors are indoor vendors, I’m not sure that a completely outdoor market is going to work, and selecting an outdoor-only site might lead towards the dissolution of the market altogether.

A People-Focus to the Downtown

We’re certainly in a pickle here in Greater Sudbury. Our Council is going to have to make a decision about Market Square very soon, and likely they’re going to have to do so without having the benefit of information pertaining to costs. The only thing which is a certainty is that Council is going to be slagged by the public, no matter which decision they make. When even supporters of the new School are turned off by the tactics of LU, there likely won’t be a big party thrown to toast Council when they decide to sell the Square and move the market.

If more information was available about costs – both current costs and anticipated costs and benefits – Council and the public would have had a much more engaging discussion about the future of our community. We are all stakeholders here. This isn’t just about market vendors or Laurentian University, or downtown businesses for that matter. We all have an interest in improving our downtown, and remaking Greater Sudbury into the type of community that we need to face the future. That kind of community has as its beating heart a vibrant, livable, walkable downtown, with attractions and amenities, and above all, people.

No downtown has ever found success by catering to cars. Our downtown must be people-centred. That’s why the new School of Architecture and the farmer’s market are such wonderful assets for our downtown. Both will lend to the creation of a sense of community.

Making Tough Decisions

Council has a touch decision to make, and maybe another one after that if we have to go looking for a new home for the farmer’s market. The first decision, to let LU secure the Market Square site, may be a forgone conclusion right now. I sincerely hope, however, that we have a better handle on costs related to the relocation of the market before any decision is made.

And I certainly hope that the farmer’s market doesn’t become a pawn used to justify building a downtown parking garage to subsidize drivers with my tax dollars.

I hope to make it out to Council Chambers next Monday (starting at 4:30) to listen to what others in my community have to say about Market Square, Laurentian University, and the farmer’s market. I certainly hope that the small matter of cost is brought up by a few of my neighbours.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

3 comments:

GreenSudbury said...

Great article Steve asking good questions and raising key issues

Anonymous said...

Great article.

I as a future farmer have no issues with the farmers market moving. It wouldn't even need to stay down town. My stipulation is that the new site sperate the farmers and vendors into seperate markets so that the farmers can have official farmers market status. This would allow the farmers to sell some products they currently cannot like preserves and baked goods.

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