So Long, Partner

James Barfoot is starting to get that feeling that comes shortly before a good relationship goes bad. As president of International Market Place Inc., a company comprising the independent vendors who hawk goods inside Shed Two at the Dallas Farmers Market, Barfoot suspects that he and his colleagues are about to get dumped. Their would-be suitor is the city of Dallas.

"We feel like we're in a courtship where every time we get close, they close the door on us," Barfoot says of the city. "It seems like they're courting us only until the real bride comes along."

Barfoot doesn't know who the real bride is, but he knows what type of bride she'll be: a yuppie, with a taste for Brie, country baguettes, tiramisu and other high-end sundries.

"We don't fit their demographics," Barfoot says. "We're too blue collar."

The Dallas Farmers Market, as its name implies, has always been a venue for farmers to sell their fruits and vegetables to Dallas residents direct. In recent years, it has also become home to a small number of independent retailers, who have successfully converted Shed Two from a white elephant into a bustling marketplace for imported furniture, artwork, jewelry and other household wares.

Despite their success, which has translated to steady rental income for the city, the vendors fear that their days at Shed Two are numbered. Last month, city officials rejected a proposal that would have given International Market Place Inc. a 10-year lease of Shed Two, guaranteeing the vendors' ability to stay in business. As part of the proposal, the newly formed company would also act as Shed Two's "developer," the vendors having promised to spend up to $2.5 million to renovate the building.

Once the improvements were complete, the existing vendors also promised to make room for new vendors who would sell high-end food products that would complement the fruits and vegetables. The promise came at the direction of city officials, who want to turn Shed Two into a deli-style market that caters to downtown workers and its new residents, who have begun flocking into the neighborhood's growing collection of renovated lofts, apartments and high-end condos.

City officials, however, weren't convinced that the vendors would follow through on their promise. While the vendors may be good tenants, the household furnishings they sell don't fit into the city's plans for Farmers Market, says Mitchell Rasansky, chairman of the city council's business and commerce committee, which on November 4 voted to reject the vendors' proposal.

"We're trying to rebuild downtown Dallas," Rasansky says. "The merchandise that is there now is inappropriate for the Farmers Market. It's just inappropriate."

Rasansky's comments are not new. For several years, city officials have been unsuccessfully looking for a developer to take over the 27,000-square-foot building, which is in dire need of major improvements, including the installation of central heat and air. The most recent attempt came in March, when the city publicly advertised that it was looking for someone to take over the project as part of a 10-year lease.

News of the bid shocked the vendors, who claim that city employees had previously agreed to create a "partnership" in which the vendors, via the newly created International Market Place Inc., would ultimately win the lease and the right to develop Shed Two.

Shortly after the bid was announced, the vendors sued the city to stop the process. Rather than fight the lawsuit, the city agreed to mediation, and in April the two parties signed a settlement agreement that effectively gave the vendors the first shot at coming up with a plan to develop the building. Although the city agreed to cooperate with the vendors and, ultimately, give full consideration to their proposal, it made no promises or agreements that their plan would be accepted.

In hindsight, Barfoot says he's not altogether surprised that the city rejected the vendors' proposal last month: He doesn't believe the city ever had any intentions of giving the vendors the lease. As the owner of Lost Empire Trading Co., Barfoot stands to lose the most if the vendors are ultimately evicted: He is Shed Two's largest tenant, paying the city some $4,600 a month in rent. (The other tenants typically pay about $300 a month for 9-by-18-foot stalls. In recent years, as the vendors have filled the shed to capacity, the monthly rent they generate as a whole has grown from about $10,000 to $25,000 today, according to Barfoot.) Now, Barfoot says the city will have another fight on its hands; the vendors are preparing to sue the city again, arguing that it did not negotiate in good faith.

"They feel they've dealt with us. We feel like they never even gave us a chance," Barfoot says. "We feel like we've earned the right to progress with this project."

Whether the lawsuit materializes remains to be seen, but the vendors appear to be on the verge of learning a lesson that most apartment dwellers know all too well: Landlords can be cruel, particularly when the lease is up and their property is in demand.

Rasansky, for one, is in no mood to mince words. The complaints that the city sold the vendors out are "absolutely unfounded." The city has given the vendors ample opportunity to come up with a proposal to develop the shed; they didn't, and now Rasansky says it's time for the city to move forward.

"There is no partnership," Rasansky says. "When you sign a lease agreement--if there was a lease agreement--when the lease is up, it's up."

As harsh as the words sound, Rasansky may be right: Although the vendors repeatedly use the word "partnership" in describing their relationship with the city, no document establishing any formal business relationship between the city and the vendors exists. In fact, the vendors do not even have written leases describing their current rental terms with the city. Although Barfoot says city officials have said they would give the vendors several months' advance notice of eviction, he concedes that the city is legally entitled to give the vendors the boot pretty much at will.

But before that happens, Barfoot says he hopes the city will remember that the vendors have been loyal tenants at a time when tenants were hard for the city to come by. Now that the neighborhood is on the rise, Barfoot hopes city officials won't turn their backs on the ones who helped bring it to this point.

"Shed Two is truly the last place in Dallas where you will rub elbows with every level. We don't want it to lose its intrinsic value," Barfoot says.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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