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Farmers' Markets: Who Benefits?

Oakland offers rent-free space for everything from crepes to clothing, and local businesses are asking what the city gets in return.



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Operators of the Oakland markets use the same rationale in explaining their expansion from farmers and bakers to artisans, services, and entertainment. "It kind of completes your shopping experience," said Chris Blackburn of the Agricultural Institute of Marin.

But by that logic, where does it end? With the newspaper vendor? The massage table? The inflatable slide? If you can get your fair-trade coffee next to the organic peach stand, a loaf of sourdough on which to spread your triple cream artisanal cheese, and a tamale to devour while the kids play on the slide, the shopping experience is, well, complete. And if the market "completes" the experience, then what reason do shoppers have to continue lingering in the neighborhood, or stop anywhere else on their way home?

"Let's call it what it is," said Allen Michaan, whose Grand Lake Theater faces the market's twenty-foot inflatable slide and the occasional political demonstration that has also found a home there. "It's a street fest."

It's hard to argue that notion. At the Grand Lake market, farmers often comprise a minority of the stands. The rest serve up everything from health services to duck paté, newspaper subscriptions, and hot meals, many of which compete with offerings of stores on Grand and Lakeshore avenues.

In its desire to provide an alternative to a grocery store, the modern farmers' market has evolved into an outdoor healthy-living shopping mall. By contrast, Berkeley businesses don't voice similar complaints about its markets because the Ecology Center hasn't encroached on their turf. It's clear about its simple mission: connecting farmers to consumers.

When a budget cut last year eliminated the position of the coordinator of Oakland's Artisans Marketplace, a city-run weekly crafts fair in Frank Ogawa Plaza and Jack London Square, it closed the only opportunity for Oakland artists to sell directly to their community. Spring Opara sold handmade candles at both, but according to her, the marketplaces were poorly planned and unprofitable. "Frank Ogawa's fine," she said. "But have you ever gone there on Fridays?"

Apparently, the idea of downtown Oakland as an arts and crafts mecca never took off. But it was still an opportunity for local craftspeople like Opara to reach and cultivate a customer base. And now that it's gone, farmers' markets have become one of the only steady opportunities. "If people weren't struggling, and cities weren't struggling for services for their residents," she said, "you wouldn't have had this argument from me."

But the city's cuts to cultural funding made Opara wonder about how Oakland fills its coffers, or doesn't. "I think that this is a leakage," she said. "This money that they're generating just from the vendors being here, how much of that money is going to Marin versus the City of Oakland?"

It's a fair question. The vendors pay fees — on the high end, artisans pay a $110 annual fee and a $47 weekly fee for the Grand Lake market — to the operators. What makes it back to Oakland's municipal purse? Very little, at least directly. The city essentially leases its public space rent-free to the markets — no permit fees necessary — and just asks operators to clean the area afterwards, clear out on time, and accommodate local business districts when problems arise.

As for taxes, each of the operators handles them differently. Pardini's Urban Village collects them from its vendors and pays the city in aggregate. The Agricultural Institute of Marin leaves it to individual vendors to pay, and does not check that the businesses are registered within Oakland. A review of a half-dozen random vendors associated with the Marin nonprofit found that not one was registered as doing business within Oakland and paying taxes.

But the city appears to be unconcerned. That's because if a business makes less than $2,700 annually, they are exempt from taxation, so Oakland's Revenue and Tax Administrator David McPherson figures that if a business is only selling in Oakland on Saturdays, "is it really worth scrutinizing if all we're gonna get are $30 out of them?" He says enforcement staff go out "every so often," but when it comes down to it, a farmers' market is "more a neighborhood, community thing than about the tax revenue."

Michaan, who says his Saturday matinee sales have plummeted in part because his customers cannot find parking, sees it as bad city planning. "It's really hurting the businesses that are paying rent, paying taxes," he said. "It's just a punch in the face to those businesses."

If the idea behind a farmers' market is to revitalize a commercial district, Michaan has his own suggestion: "It should be moved down to City Hall Plaza, because there's nothing going on down there on Saturdays. It would be a nice boost for downtown."

But in Oakland, there seems to be no agreement as to the idea behind the city's farmers' markets. Are they about economic vitality, but not about tax revenue? Fruits and vegetables, but also arts and crafts? According to Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, whose district includes Grand Lake, the city hasn't gotten around to that question. "The city council has never passed a comprehensive policy with regard to farmers' markets," she said. "I think the thinking," with the first market in Old Oakland in 1989, "was that providing fresh fruits and vegetables is a benefit to the people." The second component, she said, which developed later, is that "it's a festive public gathering that tends to attract people to the neighborhood.

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