Ann Arbor Public Market Advisory Commission (Feb. 2, 2010): Much of the discussion on Tuesday evening focused on an upcoming meeting with market vendors. Finances were on the agenda, too, with a quarterly report from the market manager and some comments from the public about expense and revenue trends, and the impact of new, higher stall fees.
The meeting with vendors, set for March 8, is part of an effort to engage farmers and others who sell products and produce at the public market. Commissioners hope to get feedback on a range of topics, from drafts of new vendor application and inspection forms to ideas for promoting the market.
Some of Tuesday’s meeting was spent reviewing drafts of the vendor application and inspection forms, which include revisions aimed at getting more detailed information about what the vendors are selling, and how the products are made.
Two speakers during public commentary – Glenn Thompson and Karen Sidney – both spoke about the public market finances, and expressed concern about the market’s financial trajectory.
Thompson gave commissioners a handout showing bar charts of market operating expenses and income from 1995 through 2009. For operating expenses, he said he’d extracted one-time items such as payments to contractors, and calculated only the market’s regular, recurring expenses. The trend, he noted, is consistently upward, starting in the year 2000 – about the time that the market was put under the direction of the city’s parks and recreation unit, he said.
At the same time, income levels are going down, Thompson said, noting that his calculations did not include income from parking. There was a fairly large jump in income from FY 2003 to FY 2004 – reflecting the last time that vendor fees were increased – but since then, income has been declining, he said. Vendor fees are slated to go up again this year, and he wondered if it would be followed by yet another decline in income, after an initial upward spike. “It’s an ominous trend, if it repeats itself,” he said.
Karen Sidney also spoke about the market’s finances during public commentary. She said she had reviewed the market’s audited financial statements. When parking revenue is extracted, the market’s income is declining, she said. Sidney added that commissioners need to look at whether an increase in vendor fees is actually driving away vendors. She feared that the market was headed toward a deficit, and thinks that raising fees will only make things worse.
During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners alluded to the vendor fee increase, but didn’t discuss it in detail. By way of background, last year the city proposed an increase of stall fees from $250 to $300 per year – a 20% increase. Jeff Straw, deputy parks manager, gave an update to commissioners about the fee increases at an April 21, 2009 meeting of the public market advisory commission.
According to minutes of that meeting, Straw said that fixed costs – including benefits, utilities and the city’s IT charge to the market – had all increased. [Until fiscal 2006, the city's IT charge was part of the municipal service charge that every unit within the city government is assessed. Starting in fiscal 2006, an IT charge has been assessed separately, in addition to the municipal service charge.] Straw said the proposed stall fee increases would raise about $12,000 in revenue and would take effect during the 2010 market season.
Peter Pollack, chair of the market commission, attended a May 17, 2009 Sunday caucus meeting of the Ann Arbor city council, where he relayed the commission’s lack of support for a fee increase, which they had expressed in the form of a unanimous resolution. From The Chronicle’s coverage of that caucus:
Pollack explained that the commission’s lack of support was based on a substantial bank account of the farmers market and the timing of the decision – neither the public nor vendors had had sufficient time to contemplate the fee increase. They’d had to do so within a month.
The resolution states that the commission does not support the fee increases at this time and requests a quarterly financial report of expenses and revenues to be accompanied by an annual review with a cost adjustment up or down based on that review. The idea is to minimize the percentage of any proposed change in any one period. Another goal of the commission is to achieve equity between the farmer stall fees and the rental rates charged to others who use the facility – for example, as a wedding venue. [Councilmember] Sabra Briere asked Pollack to clarify when the fees would go into effect – she had met with Molly Notarianni, the market manager, and had understood that the fee increases would not take effect until next year. Pollack confirmed that bills had been sent out for the 2009-10 season with the existing rates.
The new rate would appear on the next market bill, he said. Pollack said that the commission’s point was that the data did not yet exist to support the proposed fee increase. [Mayor John] Hieftje asked Pollack what kind of data he was looking for. Pollack clarified that the additional dollars to be generated through the new fee increases are attached to the full-time position of market manager and a part-time allocation of an assistant manager, so Pollack wanted to see those numbers as they related to the revenues and expenses of the market. “We need to track it,” he said. “We assume staff made the analysis,” he said, “but we haven’t seen it.”
It’s within this context that the commission had previously asked market manager Molly Notarianni to devise a summarized quarterly financial report, so that they could better track revenues and expenses, and analyze the impact of a fee increase, among other things. She delivered her first quarterly report at the commission’s November 2009 meeting. Still a work in progress, the most recent report, she said, reflects the commission’s directive to separate out revenues and expenses specifically for the farmers market – as opposed to other activities that take place in the public market space.
Notarianni noted that year-to-date revenues are up, with the largest portion of revenues coming from vendor fees. [Annual stall fees have not yet been assessed. Those fees are paid in the latter part of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.]
Much of the discussion centered around breaking out expenses between the farmers market and the rest of the activities in the public market, such as the Sunday Artisan Market. Commissioner Diane Black wondered whether they should assign a third of the utilities expense, for example, to the artisan market. During the prime market season, the farmers market is held two days a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, while the artisan market is held only on Sunday. [From January through March, however, neither the artisan market nor the Wednesday farmers market are held.]
After further discussion, commissioner Shannon Brines suggested checking if the parks and recreation managers had a formula for separating out expenses. Peter Pollack said the ultimate goal was to make sure the rentals were equitable between the farmers market and all other uses of the public market, based on expenses. He suggested that Notarianni discuss the issue with Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, and that she also go over the financial data that Glenn Thompson had provided. He said the draft of the quarterly financial report was a step in the right direction.
Market Manager Updates
Market manager Molly Notarianni said she’d received two applications for new vendors: 1) a food cart vendor who wanted to sell German sausages and fresh-squeezed lemonade, and 2) a former vendor who proposed selling mushrooms and mushroom kits.
Commissioner Dave Barkman asked whether the market was at its limit for food carts – they had set a limit of four. Notarianni said that Pilar’s Tamales was the only food cart currently at the market, though there might be another one coming on board.
Notarianni also reported that there were more vendors at the market in January than in the past – between 30-35 on most Saturdays, during what’s usually the slowest month of the year. She also reported that new signs were being made, at Barkman’s suggestion, to identify vendors who are selling certified organic products. They’ll be given to vendors who have paperwork showing proof of certification.
Vendor Meeting, Revisions to Forms
Several items will be on the agenda for the March 8 meeting with vendors, which will run from 6-8 p.m. at Cobblestone Farm: 1) an overview of the upcoming season’s schedule for the farmers market and public market, 2) updates on renovation work, including plans for improvements by the Downtown Development Authority in the Kerrytown area, and 3) discussion of advertising, promotion and special events for the market, and enlistment of volunteers for the commission’s outreach committee.
Another item for the meeting’s agenda is to get feedback on an idea that Notarianni floated: Collecting gross sales information from vendors. The point is to measure how well vendors are actually doing at the market. For example, if there’s a special promotional event that brings more people to the market, does that translate into additional sales for vendors? If not, are such events worth doing? Having sales data would help answer those questions, Notarianni said. She suggested that vendors be given the option of participating, and said the information would be kept anonymous.
Dave Barkman said it might be difficult for some vendors to tell how much they make at the Ann Arbor market. Farmers might go to several markets, he said, and use the same till for all, without separating out the sales. Diane Black suggested finding a dozen or so vendors who’d be willing to participate, and use them as a way to gauge sales more generally. Genia Service proposed putting the item on the agenda for the March 8 meeting, to see what vendors thought.
Also on the March 8 agenda will be a review of revisions to the vendor application and inspection forms, and a chance for vendors to give feedback on the proposed changes. At Tuesday’s meeting, Notarianni went over the changes that are being proposed by the commission’s policies and procedures committee. She said the goal is to collect more information, to be able to evaluate the vendor better.
For the application, a new category – “Source of materials” or “Source of ingredients” – has been added, to make it more clear how products are being grown or produced. The application also includes an additional sentence: “The products should meet MDA [Michigan Department of Agriculture], Washtenaw County Health Department, and USDA regulations, and good food safety practices.” This emphasizes the importance of food safety, Barkman said.
In the section for prepared food, one sentence has been underlined to emphasize that vendors must have “combined or assembled” their product, from ingredients that they’re required to list. Barkman said the intent is to address some of the problems that have been raised about vendors selling pre-made items. [.pdf file of draft vendor application]
As for the inspection form, it didn’t change dramatically, Notarianni said. [.pdf file of draft inspection form] A section for livestock has been added, reflecting the fact that they’ve added vendors who are selling meat. For the prepared foods section, the form asks vendors to describe their preparation process and source of ingredients. Pollack said that vendors should be asked to describe their facilities as well.
Pollack suggested that the revisions be highlighted in color, and that a cover memo should be included to indicate what has been changed. The drafts should be posted on the market’s website prior to the March 8 meeting, he said.
Pollack also observed that while the inspector’s role was to make observations about the operation of a vendor, it was the market manager’s job to make evaluations based on those observations. He suggested that a category be added with the inspection form: a place for the market manager to indicate whether the vendor complies, requires modifications, or doesn’t comply with market rules. Barkman – who also owns TJ Farms in Chelsea and is a vendor at the market – agreed that it’s important for vendors to know where they stand. It would also eliminate the possibility for a vendor to claim he didn’t understand whether or not he complied, Barkman said – it would be clear.
Pollack said that was the intent – to add clarity to the system.
During public commentary, Luis Vazquez suggested some additional revisions to the forms. It’s not that products should meet MDA and other safety regulations, he said, they must. He wondered who would ensure that proper licensing is in place for vendors. For the inspection form, he said the section on prepared foods needed work, especially as it related to baked goods.
Commissioner Shannon Brines highlighted several upcoming food-related events, including the Homegrown Local Food Summit 2010, set for March 2 at the University of Michigan’s Dana Building. The day-long event is a follow-up to last year’s summit, and will include skill-building workshops and discussion of developing a countywide local food campaign. [See Chronicle coverage of the 2009 summit: "Local Food for Thought"]
Brines also mentioned a Feb. 19 urban farming conference to be held on the UM-Dearborn campus, with Robert Kenner – maker of the documentary film Food Inc. – as keynote speaker. And on Feb. 25, the Michigan Good Food Summit will be held in Lansing, he said, with the aim of developing a statewide sustainable food system.
In addition to the public commentary reported above, Luis Vazquez spoke on several additional topics. He requested information in light of Jayne Miller’s upcoming departure. [Miller, as community services director, is the top city official who oversees the public market operations. She's taken a job as head of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority – her last day will be Feb. 11.] Vazquez wanted to know whether Miller will be replaced, who the market manager will be reporting to now, and what Miller’s departure means for the commission. [Peter Pollack, the commission's chair, later clarified that market manager Molly Notarianni reports directly to Colin Smith, the city's parks and recreation manager. Smith, in turn, reports to Miller.]
Vazquez also pointed out that two farmers market vendors – Renaissance Acres and Pilar’s Tamales – were featured in the winter 2010 edition of the Edible Wow magazine. It was great to see local vendors highlighted, especially organic producers like Renaissance Acres, he said, and he suggested that the publication be linked to from the market’s website. He also noted that another organic farmer, Peter Stark, would be offering a cooking class at Kerrytown Market & Shops.
Present: Commissioners Dave Barkman, Diane Black, Shannon Brines, Peter Pollack, and Genia Service. Also: Molly Notarianni, market manager.
Next meeting: The commission’s next regular meeting is on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 5:30 p.m. in the fourth floor of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown building, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]