As early as 1985, there have been calls for the city to forfeit management of the West Side Market to an outside operator. Now, the 1912 building is one step closer to being run by a nonprofit.
Yesterday, Mayor Justin Bibb made good on a campaign promise, announcing that his administration would begin the process of transitioning management to a nonprofit. To do so, the Bibb administration partnered with Market Ventures, a Portland, Maine-based company that consults and supports public and farmers markets nationwide, on a 10-month initiative to prepare for the transition. The team is creating a "master plan" that can serve as a road map to success for the new operators.
The hope is that a nonprofit entirely dedicated to the Market and created from scratch can take over by Fall 2023.
“Master planning for the West Side Market is key to ensuring this transition is successful. The West Side Market is a Cleveland jewel that has so much potential for growth and community impact,” said Bibb in a press release. “We will have a strong strategy and specific solutions to problems that have challenged the Market before we hand operations off to a nonprofit to lead the West Side Market in its second century.”
The move falls in line with how the nation's most successful markets, such as Pike's Place in Seattle and the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., are operated. City councilman Kerry McCormack and Ohio City Inc.'s Tom McNair have trumpeted this national best practice for years but couldn't get through former Mayor Frank Jackson's administration. Bibb, however, made exploring the possibility a key talking point of his campaign.
Though Bibb has ramped up efforts to address issues at this public institution, the Market remains in dire need. The vendor vacancy rate hovers around 30% and the building needs $20 million to $30 million in general improvements. A recent study declared the market "in crisis or near crisis."
We talked to senior strategist Jessica Trivisonno, who will facilitate the transition for the Bibb team, about what nonprofit control could mean for the West Side Market.
Cleveland Magazine: Congratulations on the big announcement. Do vendors and shoppers seem excited about the change?
Jessica Trivisonno: Change is always an adjustment even if it's a positive one. Every time the Market shows up in the news, more people show up to shop which is a good thing. But there are a lot of questions of what this is all going to mean and how it's all going to work. So there are some understandable questions, but I think the vendors are cautiously optimistic for the future.
CM: What does this mean for the West Side Market?
JT: What it means for the West Side Market is really twofold. One is it means that we are going to be spending a lot of time thinking through the transition for the market and how best the market can operate. So that means we'll be doing master planning, and we'll be really worrying about how the market can and should operate, which is one thing that the market could really benefit from and definitely came out of the report from 2019, which recommended we do some master planning.
Nonprofit operation also just really opens the door for a lot of opportunities. A nonprofit operator, just sort of by virtue of being a nonprofit, will be mission driven. It'll have a vision and measurable objectives; a staff that is focused on the market; and a board to hold that staff accountable and that is every day thinking about what's best for the market. It also means that we have a lot more flexibility in how we operate the market. It gives us access to new sources of funds that are harder to access for local governments. So things like individual donations, even philanthropic donations, historic tax credits — there are just so many sources of funds that a nonprofit can draw on that the government can't. And then it also just helps protect the market for the future. Finally, a nonprofit can plan for leadership transitions. It's a bit more politically insulated than the current operational structure. So it means a lot for the market. It will just be a matter of doing a lot of hard planning and decision making to make sure we get it right.
CM: Does nonprofit operation lessen the burden on the taxpayer?
JT: Certainly, the hope is that the nonprofit will be more of a self-sustaining entity. However, there are other nonprofit public markets. So, Findlay Market [in Cincinnati], for example, has been a nonprofit since 2004. They do still look to their city for some operational support and some capital support, so it's not out of the question for a city to continue helping support a public market because it is a community asset that's valuable to the civic life of Cleveland. But certainly the goal will be for the market to be as financially stable as it possibly can be.
CM: What is the first step of the master plan?
JT: The first four months of that master plan is really going to be focused on identifying the strengths of the market, the weaknesses and the opportunities. How do we make sure that the market is satisfying all of the needs of the vendors and of the community of the people who visit? I think we can get that community feedback, and then build our operational plan around that feedback. And so, assuming the feedback is that people want more places to sit and hang out, [for example], then we can kind of work backwards and figure out how to make that happen.
CM: Why partner with Market Ventures?
JT: I've spent the last seven months talking to 20-plus public market operators, and time and time again Market Ventures Inc. came up. So many people said, "Oh, if you could get them to work on this then they can really help you." Market Ventures Inc. is incredibly data driven. They're incredibly experienced. They've been working on public markets for decades now. They worked on a lot of interesting transitions and master plans. They worked on some recommendations for Baltimore's public market, Milwaukee's public market, the Grand Rapids public market, Essex Market in New York City. So a lot of the markets that we are impressed by they've had a hand in.
CM: There has been talk of groups like the Cleveland Metroparks taking over as the nonprofit, but you want to create a nonprofit from scratch, right?
JT: Yeah. That's the best practice from the other markets we looked at, and after talking to other nonprofits in town, we see it as an all-new nonprofit just for the market. We really want to make sure that the nonprofit is set up for success and able to make all the choices it needs to make to run the market the way that it thinks is best.