This is a long post, so here’s the summary: the City Market Downtown has called a Special Meeting to change the organization’s bylaws so that vendors have complete control over the affairs of the market, whereas previously a healthy mix of vendor and community representation has been required. I believe this is an unfortunate and reactive turn of events that will prevent the City Market from growing and achieving success in the future. The City Market is successful presently because of the partnership that exists between vendors, consumers, residents, businesses, and the City of Edmonton, and I would like to see that partnership remain and become even stronger. I’m sharing this in the hopes that more Edmontonians will look at the City Market not just as a great place to shop at on Saturday, but also as an integral part of our downtown and of the city we all want Edmonton to be.
In a little over a week the City Market Downtown will return to 104 Street for the summer season. Even though it has been nearby throughout the winter at City Hall, I’m positive that May 19 will feel more like a return than simply a shift in location. The outdoor market is an altogether different and special experience, one that thousands of Edmontonians enjoy every weekend from May through October!
For more than one hundred years, the City Market has played an important and unique role in our city. In the early days, the existence of the market reflected Edmonton’s aspirations to be a place of importance. In recent years, the market has helped to revitalize our downtown. It’s most important role however, has been as a mechanism for connecting urban Edmontonians with their rural neighbours. As Kathryn Chase Merret wrote in her book, A History of the Edmonton City Market, 1900-2000, “the years during which the Edmonton City Market flourished were years when it embodied a popularly held and powerful civic idea, the interdependence of country and city.”
When the City Market moved to 104 Street in 2004, the idea of connecting country and city became embedded in the bylaws of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers’ Market Association. Among other things, the bylaws outline the composition of the board: five to ten members, including at least two members representing vendors, one member representing residents, and one member representing the business community. That composition is significant because it puts vendors and the community on equal terms, fifty-fifty. For the organization to work with such a structure, there must be a partnership between both sides. I firmly believe that partnership is what has enabled the City Market to flourish over the last seven years. And that is why I was alarmed to receive a notice about an upcoming Special Meeting to amend the bylaws in such a way that vendors would have complete control over the market.
Over the last week I have spent a significant amount of time and energy trying to get a better understanding of the situation. I wanted to know more about the history and the people involved, and I wanted to figure out if my initial alarm regarding the changes was warranted. I have talked to both current and past board members, I have talked to residents and businesses on 104 Street, and I have talked to both current and past City Councillors. What follows simply cannot represent every viewpoint on the matter, but know that I have done my best to gather as many perspectives as possible. Unfortunately both Dieter Kuhlmann and Dan Young, the current and past chairs of the City Market board respectively, declined to comment.
Proposed Bylaw Changes
On April 27 a “Notice of Special Meeting” was mailed to all members of the Edmonton Downtown Farmers’ Market Association. The notice indicated that a Special Meeting would take place on Monday, May 14, 2012 starting at 7:30pm at the Sutton Place Hotel to vote on a Special Resolution to amend the current bylaws. A copy of the amended bylaws was included, but the current bylaws were not, making it difficult to compare. In addition to a number of smaller changes, there are three big and important changes proposed.
- The categories of membership under the current bylaws are: Regular Member, Associate Member, Honoured Life Member. Regular Members are further categorized as Vendor Members and Community Members, but both have full and equal voting rights. Under the proposed bylaws, the categories of membership are: Voting Member, Non-Voting Member, and Honoured Life Member. Importantly, only vendors would be allowed to be Voting Members.
- As mentioned above, the current bylaws state that the Board of Directors must comprise five to ten members, including at least two Regular Members representing vendors, one Regular Member representing residents of downtown Edmonton, and one Regular Member representing the business community of downtown Edmonton. Under the proposed bylaws, the Board of Directors would be comprised of five to nine individuals, including a minimum of five Voting Members (ie. vendors), and if additional board members are elected, one Non-Voting Member who would represent residents and one Non-Voting Member who would represent the business community. If a full slate were to be elected, the eighth and ninth members would also be Voting Members.
- Under the current bylaws, each Director serves a two year term and may serve no more than three consecutive terms. Under the proposed bylaws, there is no limit to the number of terms a Director may serve.
To summarize, the changes remove the requirement to have resident and business representatives on the board, they remove the right of non-vendors to vote, they require that vendors always have a majority on the board, and they remove the term limits for board members.
I think it is important to point out that inadequate notice has been given for this Special Meeting. According to Service Alberta:
The by-laws must say that in the future the by-laws can only be changed by a special resolution of the members. Special resolution is defined in Section 1(d) of the Societies Act. The definition cannot be changed.
If you look at that section of the Societies Act, you’ll find that for such a resolution to be valid, “not less than 21 days’ notice specifying the intention to propose the resolution has been duly given.” In this case, just 17 days notice has been given.
Why did this come forward?
Practically speaking, someone brought a petition forward signed by twenty-five members of the association, as required by section 9.03 of the bylaws. I have been told that the petition was not a board initiative, and although no one was willing to name names it has become clear to me that there is one individual in particular who has taken it upon himself to drive this forward.
For some time now, there have been complaints from the businesses on the street about the logistics of the market. The businesses feel that the configuration of the market on the south end of the street unnecessarily hides their storefronts, blocks the sidewalks, and makes it difficult for consumers to shop. The market has typically responded with concern about the impact any changes would have on the logistics of setting up and tearing down the market. In my opinion, both sides have handled the situation poorly. The market seems to have taken the perspective that it is the greatest thing to ever happen to the street, and the businesses don’t seem to realize that perhaps they could do more to attract some of the 15,000+ people who walk by on a Saturday. Discussions have been ongoing and with Councillor Batty acting as a mediator between the two sides in recent weeks, a small amount of progress was finally made a few days ago when both sides agreed to trial a reconfiguration of the south end of the market. I think this ongoing negative situation has contributed to the desire by some vendors to remove any business representation from the market.
Another contributing factor appears to be last year’s vote on whether or not to pursue the Mercer Warehouse as a year-round venue for the market. The motion was defeated overwhelmingly, 69-3. Sharon and I abstained from that vote because we felt it was inappropriate to vote on something that could have such a significant impact on a vendor’s financial situation (each would have had to contribute thousands of dollars). In hindsight, it seems that a number of community representatives pushed quite hard for the building and that may have contributed to some vendors feeling threatened and ultimately led to the decisive vote.
Most significantly, it seems that personality conflicts have played a major role in this turn of events. Arnold Renschler was recruited to the board as a community member and was elected in January this year, but stepped down just a couple of months later after attempting unsuccessfully to bring vendors and businesses on the street together to discuss their differences. He quickly found that others on the board were not supportive of his initiative. “We need people to volunteer and while I am willing to give my time, the organization has to be open, transparent, fair, and democratic,” he told me. Arnold felt that the organization was one he did not want to be associated with, a message I have heard from a number of other individuals as well.
Why does this matter?
In my conversations over the last week, people overwhelmingly feel that the proposed changes would take the market in a negative direction. “A healthy balance between vendors and non-vendors is what has made the market successful,” is what former board member Jennifer Fisk told me. That healthy balance is precisely why the original board members wrote the bylaws the way they did. They recognized that the City Market is unique specifically because of its location. Instead of occupying a building that it owns and operates, the City Market calls 104 Street home just on Saturdays and just during the summer months. You might say that they are a guest of the street for that time, and that being a guest comes with certain expectations. “Downtown has many stakeholders, all of which need to be willing to hold dialogue with each other and discuss the issues in a rational, open-minded manner,” Chris Buyze, President of the Downtown Edmonton Community League, told me. “It’s about maintaining balance and a willingness to work with others.”
Without question, many vendors have a much larger stake in the market than residents or local businesses do. For many vendors, the market is their livelihood, and they’ve almost certainly put more blood, sweat, and tears into participating in the market than someone who simply lives on the street. However, because of that greater investment vendors are more likely to act in their own self-interest than in the best interests of the market. Having outside representation can help to provide a broader perspective. “I believe it should be a vendor led board, but that doesn’t mean that you have to exclude the other parties,” Arnold told me. There are few organizations that are as political as farmers’ markets are, and often that’s because of turf wars and other petty differences.
From a logistical point-of-view, having a balance of vendors and non-vendors is vitally important. Vendors are busy and many live outside the city, so they cannot be expected to keep up-to-date with what is happening on the street. That’s one area in which residents and businesses can be extremely valuable contributors. For example, they can both provide input to the board about changes to the street and can attend meetings in the city such as the ones that Transportation is scheduling to discuss future LRT construction.
Most people I talked to also feel that it is difficult to compare the City Market to other markets. Each market is different and what might work for one won’t necessarily work for another. For example, the St. Albert Market is completely run by the Chamber of Commerce and it has grown to become possibly the most successful single-day market in the province. In contrast, the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market is vendor-run and yet it too is extremely successful. The context in which the City Market operates is completely different, and I think a strong case can be made for a healthy mix of vendor and community representation.
The City Market does not operate in a vacuum. It needs the support of the community it parachutes in and out of for twenty-two weeks over the summer. “I do think that this market in particular works best when the community and the market are integrated,” former City Councillor Michael Phair told me. “It would be very valuable to have voting representation on the board from someone that has a connection to those living or working on the street.”
Why does the City Market matter?
There are lots of farmers’ markets in the Edmonton area, and new ones seem to be popping up all the time. But there aren’t any other markets like the City Market. Being located in the heart of downtown is a huge advantage that no other market has. The City Market is the only farmers’ market accessible via LRT, for instance, and that draws thousands of people into the core every week. When the LRT was extended to Century Park, there was a noticeable jump in attendance at the City Market.
According to Alberta Agriculture, the average person spent $35 per visit to a farmers’ market in 2004. By 2008, that number had jumped to $45. “The average customer to the City Market spends $68 each week,” former board member and 104 Street resident Jon Hall explained to me. “The market supports millions of dollars of commerce each year.” And he pointed out that the weekly average spend does not include parking, coffee, or other things that people might buy while they are in the area.
We throw the R-word (revitalization) around a lot these days, but there’s no question that the City Market has played and continues to play an important role in the turnaround of downtown. That’s especially exciting because it was not very long ago that the market itself was in need of a turnaround! There seems to be a interesting mix of fortunes for downtown and the City Market. For example, one of the key reasons that Sharon and I moved downtown was because of the City Market.
Future of the City Market
While the City Market still has a number of years on its lease with the City for 104 Street, there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Starting next year, the market will likely face significant logistical challenges at its present location due to the construction of the proposed third and fourth Icon towers in the parking lot on the northwest corner of 102 Avenue and 104 Street, as well as the eventual construction of the Downtown LRT Connector (which runs down 102 Avenue). There are alternatives that don’t require the market to move off the street, however. Michael Phair suggested that both the alley behind Sobeys and 104 Street south across Jasper Avenue could be viable locations for the market to expand or move into. “As you go south, you have quite a bit of space,” he said. “I think it would be relatively easy to manage the crossing at Jasper Avenue.” He points out that thousands of people cross Gateway Boulevard every Saturday from the parking lot to the Old Strathcona market, so why can’t they cross Jasper Avenue, which has even less traffic?
If the City Market cannot remain on 104 Street because a new location is truly better for the market, then that’s a valid reason to move. But if the market decides to move because it cannot or will not get along with the 104 Street community, that’s a different situation altogether. And I fear that without representation from the downtown community that has been home to the market for over one hundred years, there’s a real chance that the market may consider moving outside the downtown core. That would be a significant blow to the momentum that downtown now has, and I think would ultimately have a negative impact on the market itself.
The City Market on 104 Street is successful today because of the partnership that exists between vendors, consumers, residents and businesses on the street, and the City of Edmonton. Without the significant investments made by the City over the last two decades, 104 Street simply would not have been able to develop into one of Edmonton’s premier streets. The residents, businesses, and City Market together all bring the foundation provided by the City to life and positively contribute to the vibrancy and attractiveness of the street.
I believe that partnership is worth fighting for, and as such I view the proposed bylaw changes with great concern. I do not believe that the changes have been suggested with the best interests of the City Market at heart, and I think it is clear that they have been brought forward without adequate notice in an effort to avoid healthy discussion of the matter. I feel that strong vendor and community representation is a necessity for the City Market to continue to thrive, and I think that any attempt to cut either side out of the equation is shortsighted and harmful.
The City Market is not simply a place to buy food and crafts on the weekend. Rather, it connects Edmonton’s urban and rural communities and contributes significantly to the ongoing revitalization of our downtown. The City Market is one of the few remaining connections we have to our city’s earliest days, and I hope it continues to successfully play a role in the lives of Edmontonians for years to come.
How You Can Help
Tell others that you care about the City Market and its role in the city. Contact the City Market and buy a $10 membership. Go to the meeting on Monday night and express your concerns. Write to your City Councillor. Tweet your thoughts. Whatever you do, please don’t take the City Market for granted!
UPDATE (May 12): As per the comment below from City Market board chair Dieter Kuhlmann, the meeting has been postponed until mid-June. Here’s the notice that was sent to members:
The Special Meeting that was called for May 14, 2012 has been cancelled. Notice of a Special Meeting for the week of June 11, 2012 will be issued and mailed out next week in order to provide members with the required 21 days notice of the Special Resolution that will be the topic of the Special Meeting.
While this is a welcome change that will allow for more discussion, it doesn’t mean the issue is done just yet.