The Midtown Farmers Market was its usual robust self on Saturday, with lively music, hula-hooping kids, tantalizing scones, naturally raised meats and vibrant floral arrangements going fast.
Behind the scenes, though, organizers were trying not to panic about the future of their little market that could.
The Midtown Farmers Market, for those of you who haven’t yet experienced it, is a community treasure, both in terms of its offerings and the tireless collaborative effort that brought it to life.
Volunteers from seven south Minneapolis neighborhoods, led by the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization (CNO), created the market a decade ago at 2225 E. Lake St., now located just below the heavily used Hiawatha light-rail line. The market draws more than 60,000 customers yearly from across the Twin Cities.
Many of those shoppers hail from diverse communities, experiencing for the first time the affordability and pleasure of shopping fresh and local. This was the first Minnesota market to accept EBT, formerly called food stamps.
The Minneapolis public schools, owner of the 6.5-acre site that also houses the district’s adult education program, has allowed the market to run rent-free for 11 seasons. The district has promised that this generous deal will last as long as MPS owns the site.
That’s where panic sets in.
After closed-door discussions, MPS has rejected an $83 million redevelopment plan for the site. The plan, shaped and supported by the community, envisions an alluring mix of senior and affordable housing, retail and office space, parking and, finally, a permanent home for the farmers market.
A big sticking point for the district, its leaders say, is how to provide adequate and affordable space for its booming adult education program.
“We’re still interested in seeing development of that corner,” said school board member Richard Mammen, noting that the farmers market “has been a great asset to the neighborhood and space.
“We’re looking for a plan and a partnership with someone to meet all the needs,” he said. That partnership could include renewed talks with the original development team or somebody new, he said.
Eric Gustafson worries about the district moving to sell too quickly, particularly without public input. “So much community process went into this,” said Gustafson, CNO’s executive director.
“What if they auction it off to build a big, faceless office tower, or high-density housing with no sense of public value or pedestrian scale? If that happens, everybody stands to lose. This is a cornerstone property.”
Promising developments over the past week suggest the cornerstone will be laid. Politicians are coming out of the woodwork to express support for permanency.
Last week, outgoing Ninth Ward City Council Member Gary Schiff hosted a well-attended community dialogue at Mercado Central about the market’s future. Ninth Ward candidate Ty Moore blogged about the need to “keep the pressure up as negotiations proceed, to ensure that this treasure is … made permanent.”
Mayor R.T. Rybak and Metropolitan Council Member Adam Duininck also are champions.
Most heartening, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin is in discussions with Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, Mammen and others about the possibility of making room for a Hennepin County Human Services hub, “as a way to get a major tenant into the space.”
“They have a legitimate concern to get a reasonable price for their property,” McLaughlin said of the school district. “But they’re a member of the community.”
McLaughlin expressed to school leaders that Hennepin County is very interested in becoming a tenant, but emphasized that the county is looking at other sites, too, “and we’ve got a deadline.” As part of a decentralization effort across the county, he needs to be out of the Minneapolis downtown Century Plaza building by the end of 2014.
“The window is going to close in relatively short order,” he said.
McLaughlin’s support of the market is more than professional. He and his daughter often ride light rail to the Midtown Market to buy corn on the cob, tomatoes, cheese, lamb and “boatloads” of fresh basil to make pesto that they freeze for winter feasting.
“I’m hopeful,” McLaughlin said of the farmers market’s future. “It’s complicated,” he said.
“But it’s always complicated.”