Why Is Dallas City Hall Trying To Bury The Burgeoning Farmers Market Movement Under A Morass Of Municipal Regulation?

How many people in Dallas know that our downtown farmers market is outclassed and out-performed by the farmers market in Detroit? Or that Dallas, which thinks of itself as a kind of capital of free enterprise, is way deeper into government control and regulation of farmers markets than Detroit?

Irony City.

I have been asking around and doing research on urban farmers markets for some months. I started with the Farmers Market Coalition, a national group, and they referred me to Professor Jim Bingen at Michigan State University in East Lansing, a national authority on farmers markets. He told me about the huge success achieved by Detroit's Eastern Market.

People want to have little fresh produce markets in their neighborhoods. So do we really need an entire Soviet-style rollout of new regulation and control for that? Can’t City Hall just butt out for a change?
Patrick Michels
People want to have little fresh produce markets in their neighborhoods. So do we really need an entire Soviet-style rollout of new regulation and control for that? Can’t City Hall just butt out for a change?

You could say, yeah, sure, he's some guy in Michigan, so of course he likes Michigan's biggest farmers market. And I'm from Detroit originally, so maybe it's a conspiracy. But Eastern Market in recent years has received rave reviews from the national and even foreign press as well as from experts.

Last August, Toronto's Globe and Mail, the national newspaper of Canada, published a fairly devastating portrait of Detroit—crushing debt, terrible unemployment, scary homicide rate—but singled out Eastern Market as a beacon of hope, a place that "thrives with local farmers on weekends."

OK, so ask yourself. Dallas doesn't have crushing debt or any of that other crushing stuff. Why is our own downtown farmers market so stubbornly moribund?

Bingen told me that the secret of Eastern Market's success may be its system of governance. At his suggestion I spoke with Ed Deeb, a prominent Detroit businessman, president of the Michigan Business and Professional Association, who is one of the volunteers credited with bringing Eastern Market back to life after dark times.

Deeb helped lead a successful campaign to pry Detroit's sprawling market out of the grip of Detroit city government entirely. In 2005, the market was placed under the control of a private 501(c)3 corporation run by and for its vendors, but also with strong input from private businesses surrounding the market.

Deeb told me the move to take the market out from under City Hall started in 1986, spurred by the vendors and the surrounding businesses. "They called me, and they said, 'Ed, we don't have a voice at City Hall at all. We call them. We send letters. Nobody responds.'"

After I spoke with Deeb, I tried to contact Dallas officials in charge of our own farmers market. The main administrative phone number for the market gave me a recording, which referred me to another number, which gave me a recording.

Uh, yeah, Mr. Deeb. You were saying?

"You've got to have a rapport between the people managing the market and the people that sell in the market. You've got to have a good management team. The guys that run the market have to know what they're doing. They have to be pleasant. They shouldn't be dictatorial."

He said the private entity running the Eastern Market devotes great energy and expense to promotion. "Here's what you gotta do," he said. "First of all you've got to advertise and promote. You've got to have special sales. You have to create events at the market like a parade down Main Street or a Gospel Fest or an Oktoberfest or Peach Week or Apple Week or whatever and get the people down there."

Deeb says attendance at Eastern Market has increased in the last few years from 30,000 people per weekend to 45,000, drawing from across Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. The annual flower show draws 100,000 people.

At a recent briefing for the Dallas City Council, Jack Ireland, an assistant city manager, presented attendance figures for our own market "estimated to be 2,000,000 per year." That would break down to about 5,700 visitors per day at the Dallas Farmers Market. I have my doubts.

Janel Leatherman, the market administrator, told me in an e-mail that the Dallas market carried out a customer count on Saturday, July 18, 2009, showing 9,300 people at the market between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Let's take Leatherman's numbers, rather than the numbers shown to the city council. Who's going to tell those clowns the truth, anyway? We will generously round her numbers upward to show the Dallas Farmers Market drawing about 20,000 people per weekend.

That means that Detroit—a city 70 percent our size with about 5,000 percent more going against it—has a farmers market that draws two and a half times what ours does on a weekend. From surrounding states and another nation.

And what is the most notable difference in terms of City Hall governance here and in Detroit? They don't have any. And why do I care?

This is where we get to the ironies about Dallas as a place believing in free enterprise and the private sector. Last week at the same briefing where the city council was told the farmers market draws 2 million visitors a year (three times the annual attendance at the zoo), the council also was told another great truth about farmers markets in Dallas:

The thing farmers markets need most, according to assistant city manager Ireland, is more City Hall control. Ireland told the council that all of the fledgling neighborhood farmers markets cropping up in the city in the last two years need to be placed firmly under his boot.

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