The Nelson and District Youth Centre will take over the running of farmers’ markets this summer from the West Kootenay EcoSociety. The market will be held at Cottonwood Falls Park, not downtown, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The EcoSociety asked the city for $30,000 and a waiver of fees to run the markets, saying that without this it was uncertain whether the markets could go ahead.
At a council meeting last week closed to the public, council decided to decline the EcoSociety’s request and direct its own staff at the city-run youth centre to take over.
Mayor John Dooley told the Star the decision was financial, reflecting the city’s restricted fiscal situation during the pandemic.
“The position that we’re in at the moment, we have really have to be cautious in how we manage our resources, financially, and human resources as well,” he said. “And we weren’t in a position to give additional funding for the market.”
The EcoSociety asked for the money because provincial pandemic requirements will mean fewer vendors and therefore less vendor fee income, and because of the cancellation of Marketfest and Gardenfest, both important income generators.
EcoSociety executive director Montana Burgess told the Star the markets are the EcoSociety’s and she wasn’t sure how the city could simply take them over.
“The city didn’t ask us if we wanted them to run our market. The city never came to us and said, ‘OK, one option is that we could do it ourselves.’ They told us they were running them. That feels hurtful for all the hard work we’ve put in to build the reputation of these markets.”
Burgess said she thought they were still in negotiations about a collaboration between the youth centre and EcoSociety. As soon as the EcoSociety learned of council’s decision they had to lay off their markets manager, Craig Mullin, she said.
Dooley said the city was operating in a restricted time frame and wanted some certainty for vendors and the public. Negotiations between city staff and the EcoSociety were not making progress, he said, adding the EcoSociety told the city (and Burgess agrees) the EcoSociety might not be able to run the markets for the full summer if they did not get the requested grant.
Youth centre takes over
Asked if the youth centre has the expertise or staff to run a farmers market, Dooley said, “We’ve had success with the youth centre running a number of enterprises such as the campsite and the parkade,” adding that much of the work at the markets is done by the vendors.
He said some youth centre staff have been laid off during the pandemic and could return to work with the markets. He said the city would not have to hire any extra employees.
Councillor Jesse Woodward, who was markets manager for the EcoSociety for several years before being elected to council, told the Star he will be acting as an “unpaid consultant, sharing my expertise” in the youth centre-run market.
Asked if he experienced divided loyalties in these discussions between the city and his former employer, Woodward said his loyalty is to farmers and food security, especially in light of the pandemic.
“My whole drive is not who is running the markets but getting food from the fields to the plate. We have to make sure we are supporting our local farmers. Not having a market this year would have been a contraction of food security in Nelson.”
He said the markets have always depended on the city in a variety of ways including infrastructure, land and administration.
“I worked [as markets manager] with the city and police and fire every year. The city has always been part of the market in one way or another.”
The markets were scheduled to start on June 6, but because of uncertain weather and potentially dangerous water flows in Cottonwood Creek, they will start on June 13.
Behind closed doors
There has been much discussion over the past month between city staff and the EcoSociety about whether, where, and how to present and fund the markets, especially in light of the pandemic.
At the council table, discussion of these matters has been closed to the public.
B.C.’s Community Charter, the legislation that governs municipalities in the province, lists a number of allowable reasons for meetings to be held in private, one being “labour relations or other employee relations.”
Dooley said that was the reason for the privacy of Monday’s meeting: the staff at the youth centre are city employees and their employment was being discussed.
Asked later to elaborate on the reason for the closed meeting, Dooley said, “I don’t have time for this negative discussion. We are moving ahead with the markets in a positive way.”
Burgess said the privacy of the meeting is unfortunate because she would like to know where various councillors stood on the issue. “Because right now, no one from the public knows, including us.”
‘I wish them well’
Burgess said youth centre staff will find running the markets is a hard job.
“I honestly wish them well,” she said. “I think the city is really lucky because they have councillor Woodward who used to run the markets with us, because he will be able to provide expertise if he’s willing to volunteer that time.
“I think they’re going to see the markets aren’t as lucrative and easy as maybe they had assumed. But I do wish the markets well and hope the vendors do well this year.”