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Three Million Dollars Later, Farmers Market Shed No. 2 Is "Maybe 25 Percent" Full. Why?

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This morning, I had a long chat with Janel Leatherman, the Dallas Farmers Market administrator, concerning the dearth of vendors in Shed 2 -- which, as you no doubt recall, was enclosed and air-conditioned at the cost of $3.2 million,and which quietly reopened at the end of '08. Since construction on the 10,000-square foot shed was completed, but a single new tenant has moved in: A&J Bakery, which had already packed up early Saturday afternoon when the family and I went downtown for our weekly visit. At the moment, Leatherman guesstimates that the shed's "maybe 25 percent occupied"; there will be no official grand opening till that number's closer to 50 percent.

So, why no newcomers? "We wish we knew," Leatherman tells Unfair Park.

Actually, she has some idea: the economy, for starters. "When we were ready to do the major push is when things started getting a little bumpy," she says. And some folks who have expressed interest -- "bakeries, local producers, even restaurants," she says -- pulled out for various reasons, including, in one instance, a death in the family.

The city's Convention and Event Services department oversees the Farmers Market; it's the department that put together the 19-page application and information doc provided to would-be vendors. I initially called its director, Frank Poe, to discuss some current vendors' concerns that the city was partially responsible for the sparsely filled shed. Some say privately that the city is demanding a lot from vendors (including permanent walls and paying for the cost of drilling through the floor to reach the newly installed sanitary sewer line) while offering tenant agreements that are far more advantageous for the city than the vendor. Poe wasn't available, but Leatherman was anxious to address those issues. She does so after the jump.

"We are not requiring anything from vendors who go into the shed, other than what they need to operate their kind of business -- a bare minimum build-up," she tells Unfair Park. "We want them to put walls up. We won't let them use a grid wall system. It does need to be something more than that for stability -- kind of the look of permanence. And because of the fire code, they can't put up wooden walls, and it needs to have metal studs and sheet rock. But we have told them to come back to us with something they feel would be appropriate. We are happy to look at anything."

The city had more or less promised that Shed 2 would also have a sort of food court, which is among the reasons it installed a sanitary sewer line underneath the concrete slab floor; it connects to a grease trap, which the city has said it will maintain. But anyone wanting to cook or bake on the premises will have to pay the thousands necessary to drill through the slab and connect to the sewer. And, of course, they will have to pay for the necessary hood suppression system required by fire code.

"That being said, we have yet to receive from any of the vendors a detailed kind of expense list per item so we can take a look and try to help them," Leatherman says. "Some have given us ballpark figures, but we don't have a real good handle on that."

Another issue are the vendor agreements required of anyone wanting to set up shop in the shed. Vendors insist they lean too far in the city's favor -- as in, they say the city can move a vendor from one location in the shed to another, or even out the door, with 48 hours' notice. Why? "For cause." Which, as far as Leatherman is concerned, means that the city can move a vendor only in an extreme case -- say, if part of the building is damaged and the city needs to reconfigure the vendors sooner than later. But some vendors interpret the clause to mean the city has the right to kick them out at any time for any reason, despite the length of the contract, which is one year and which is renewable.

"And they can give us notice if they want to leave," Leatherman says. "In the permit, it says we can give them notice, and the only way that will happen is if they're not living up to the terms of the agreement. It does not say 'lease,' and there are reasons for it. We want to have an agreement for them and keep it flexible, so they can do do what they need to do and do what we need to do."

She says this is a point of contention she's discussed "over and over" with the current vendors, none of whom the city's looking to run off. (Though, last month, it did adios Rios Interiors -- because it wants food, not furniture. Still, seems it would have made more sense -- and cents -- to keep the longtime retailer till other, more edible options presented themselves.)

At the moment, the city's offering deep discounts to vendors "and will continue to do so," Leatherman says. How much? She won't say, except to note that those vendors operating out of corner stalls are paying significantly less than those set up "in the main aisleway."

As the application and informational pamphlet shows, the city expects vendors to have their businesses open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. -- at least. And, it reminds: "'The Shed' is not a 'food court' but a marketplace where customers purchase products for use off site along with the possibility of purchasing some food products for consumption on-site." But, right now, vendors sell not only coffee and cheeses and meats and spices, but also King Tut carvings and mirrors -- though Leatherman says the city will no longer allow so-called "import" retailers to set up shop.

And in its pitch to vendors, the city notes the myriad developments springing up downtown -- a total of nearly 1,500 residential units when all is said and done. Far as Leatherman's concerned, "it's a prime time" to fill the shed with something other than space.

"With everyone moving back downtown and all the activity around the market and so many new residences and so little opportunity for this kind of shopping," she says, "it's the perfect time for all of this to come together."

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