Jessica Trivisonno stands in the empty second-floor locker room at the West Side Market. With high ceilings, original subway tile walls and a bank of windows overlooking its bustling first floor, the space could host a wedding, gala or even a business lunch. “This place needs that,” says Trivisonno, adjusting the blazer over her West Side Market T-shirt. Instead, it’s one of the market’s most-cited examples of underutilization.
What’s standing in the way? Money. A project like this would cost $3 million in renovations. The market, currently at a 32% vacancy rate and declared "in crisis or near crisis" by a recent study, needs an estimated $30 million in general improvements.
On the campaign trail, Mayor Justin Bibb promised to make the city-run market a top priority, potentially even transitioning it to a new operator. Since being elected, he's so far followed through on that promise by meeting with vendors, kicking off an 18-month plumbing project and encouraging City Council to repeal a ban on alcohol sales by the Market's vendors.
But before any of that, he appointed Trivisonno to focus on the market’s day-to-day. We strolled the floor with new Bibb's senior strategist to the West Side Market to see what she has in store for the beloved, struggling 1912 landmark.
Q. What is your role?
A. One is thinking through the process of transitioning to another operator, a nonprofit or cooperative ownership by the vendors. But in the meantime, how do we make the market as healthy as it can be so that whoever the next operator is doesn’t just get immediately overwhelmed? I see myself as a little bit of a bureaucracy buster and as a facilitator.
Q. What is currently happening to improve the West Side Market?
A. This next phase of improvements includes a huge plumbing project. Right now, there is every different type of plumbing from the past 100 years. Hopefully modernizing that will fix some of the issues stand owners currently run into, and as part of that, each stand owner will get a hand sink and either a mop sink or a compartment sink. The conference room used by the Tenants Association is also getting new plaster and drop ceilings. The market was also running on residential electric, so there’s a planned upgrade to get that more in line with commercial standards.
Q. What could be improved at the market?
A. We have so many multi-million-dollar projects that it’s hard to figure out what to do first. Do you choose the roof, the electricity or the plumbing? You need to make a choice year by year. Stakeholder engagement is necessary to figure out what to prioritize. I think the first step is agreeing on some shared values for the market and keeping those values as an anchor as we make decisions. Tenant association president Don Whitaker is excellent at reminding people that we’re one market.
Q. What challenges are unique to the West Side Market?
A. Part of why it’s stayed is because it is so grand, opulent and beautiful. But that also means that there’s so much that goes into maintaining the building and keeping it going. I think that will always and forever be a challenge. Another one — and I think this makes the market more interesting and healthier — is that it is 70-100 small businesses who are all operating under one roof but have their own individual needs.
Q. A lot of Clevelanders dream of a day when they might be able to buy a beer and a burger, sit back and enjoy the space. I'd imagine there is some pushback from certain vendors on that idea.
A. Shoppers, too! Vendors are more open to change than I would have anticipated. They want the market to succeed. So if that means having a liquor license for the market, I think vendors are open to it. With food, it goes back to infrastructure. There are only a few spaces that we can rent out with a kitchen hood, and we don't have a commercial culinary kitchen. So that’s another dream project.
The good thing is you don’t hear of anybody who doesn’t think the market should continue being a market. There is a world in which you could imagine a group of people saying make it into townhomes or apartments. But everyone is on the same page that this should continue to be this type of atmosphere.
Q. That dream took a step closer to becoming a reality when legislation passed to remove a ban on alcohol at the market. What did it mean to pass that?
A. I saw a Reddit post a couple weeks ago like "What's the lowest hanging fruit in Cleveland?" and the top answer was "allow beer sales at the West Side Market." We've heard from current vendors and prospective vendors that they would like to be able to sell alcohol if they were allowed to, and we've heard from customers over and over again that they would like to either be able to buy carry-out beer and wine or grab a drink and walk around the market. So, it's been a pretty clear priority. The first step was repealing the law that prohibits alcohol sales. That said, the legislation changed the law, but it's not like the policy is going to change over night. It's going to take a bit before we can implement the rules.
Q. Are there other markets you’re looking to as an example, such as Findlay Market in Cincinnati or Eastern Market in Detroit?
A. I think another question that's maybe a little too early to answer like I would like to be able to. I love markets, and I visit them every time I travel and there is one nearby. I am also doing sit downs with other market managers, like the North Market in Columbus. One of the members of Mayor Bibb’s transition team talked to people from Findlay Market. My understanding is, before transitioning it over to another manager, the city did put, like, $40 million into it. So one thing I’m curious about is how they chose what to prioritize? Was that totally comprehensive? What else was missing? I think there are certain markets that seem to be a decent model, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself because one market might seem like a good target until you learn more about the nuances of how they work. I imagine we’re going to be more picking and choosing from various different models and coming up with what makes sense for Cleveland.
Q. Rep. Mary Rose Oakar, a Clevelander who served congress from 1977 to 1993, wrote “a microcosm not only of Cleveland, but also of the world...the West Side Market satisfies our human needs for food. It provides human contact for friends, neighbors, merchants, and it fulfills the need for public servants to be at their best, to meet and listen to the grassroots people.” Do you think that is still true?
A. I think that's true, and something we should probably try to make sure becomes more and more true. Because I think the market could be a more diverse and inclusive place. Something I did in Detroit Shoreway, which I would like to see done here, is create a transparent strategy for leasing. I would show potential vendors the space and tell them what they need to submit a business plan and an application for the space, but I also gave them the scorecard that an advisory committee would use to evaluate their business plans. That included values that Detroit Shoreway held for its commercial spaces. Businesses could look at it and know what they’d be evaluated on, and we could make sure businesses were prepared for ownership. I think that’s one thing we could improve even before we hand the market off to another operator.
Q. What else about your experience informs what you’re doing now?
A. Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and Cuddell Improvements (now called Northwest Neighborhoods CDC) owns about 40 commercial properties as part of its portfolio. I would work to lease those spaces and work with the small businesses in sort of an advisory group to evaluate people who wanted to move their small business into Detroit Shoreway. I developed a lot of relationships with small businesses and the economic development ecosystem in Cleveland. I have really been able to see the kinds of things that the small businesses who succeeded were doing. That helped me coach other businesses to succeed, which I think really will help me in this position. Also, so much of what I did in Detroit Shoreway and Cuddell was stakeholder engagement. Like if there was a new building that was being proposed, I worked hard with the developers to make sure people know what's going on and have some sort of say and feel engaged in the process so that they feel like the development is happening in their neighborhood and not to their neighborhoods, which is such a hard thing to do. I'm hoping I can bring some of that collaborative community stakeholder perspective into the market, because I don't think we're going to successfully figure out the next stage for the market if we're not being collaborative.
Q. What does the market mean to Cleveland?
A. It’s an important part of Clevelanders’ pride. That’s why they bring their family members here. That’s why they visit on the weekends. They’re proud of the architecture, the small businesses, the history. This is somewhere that people feel a real sense of Cleveland identity.