Milwaukee County Board leaders urge parks officials to keep winter farmers market at Domes – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Milwaukee County Board leaders are asking the Parks Department to rescind its decision to boot the Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market out of the greenhouse annex at the Mitchell Park Domes after a five-year run.

Board Chairman Theodore Lipscomb Sr. and Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic want the department to continue renting the annex to the market on Saturdays from November through April. The popular market has operated there since 2013.

The department notified the market in March that it was going in a different direction and decided to make the large space available on those Saturdays for other private and public events under its catering partnership with Zilli Hospitality Group.

“The administration’s seemingly profit-driven decision to cancel the public farmers market in favor of private events is shortsighted and lacks a broader public vision that benefits our diverse community,” Lipscomb said. “Thanks to the farmers market, thousands of visitors spend their money here and enjoy an amenity within our Milwaukee County park system.”

On Tuesday, the parks, energy and environment committee approved a resolution urging the Parks Department to continue the county’s partnership with the Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market by negotiating a new lease with the Fondy Food Center.

Dimitrijevic, a former board chair, said south side neighborhoods near the Domes lacked access in winter to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables. Dimitrijevic said she supported the committee resolution.

“The winter farmers market at the Domes provides opportunities for our diverse community to escape the cold while eating healthier and supporting local businesses,” Dimitrijevic said.

An average of 1,784 people on Saturdays shopped the indoor winter market, for a total of 41,040, during the 2017-’18 season that ended April 14, said Fondy Food Center Executive Director Jennifer Casey. Fondy Food manages the market that draws about 80 farmers and local food vendors.

Vendors sell produce, meat, eggs, poultry, cheese and other dairy products, baked goods, jams, cider, honey, maple syrup, sauces, soups and other prepared foods. The market generates more than $1 million in sales each season, Casey said.

RELATED: Winter farmers market must move from Domes

The market paid $13,200 to the county for use of the space on 23 Saturdays this past winter, Casey said. The annex is available for other events after vendors pack up by 2 p.m. on Saturdays, she said.

The market could co-exist with catered events on Friday and Saturday evenings, Casey said in a letter to County Board supervisors.

In a report, Interim Parks Director Guy Smith acknowledged the department’s partnership with the market has been “a great success” in increasing public awareness of the Domes greenhouse annex, expanding the market’s customer base and providing a fun winter activity in the parks system.

“Despite these benefits, the event also places an inordinate burden on the county staff,” the report said. “The burdens of the event have become unsustainable.”

While the market pays a rent of $600 per Saturday, the event costs the county nearly $830, according to Smith.

Simply boosting the rental fee to cover those costs to the county will not make it a sustainable event, he said in the report. Staff time committed to supporting the market is time not spent on regular park duties at the Domes, Smith said.

Katie Hassemer, director of farm markets for the Fondy Food Center, questioned Smith’s reporting of the need for a county employee to work five hours on Friday evenings to prepare for the market and eight hours on Sunday to clean up the annex.

The group rents the space from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and the market is held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Most vendors are out of the annex by 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, Hassemer said.

Both Casey and Hassemer said it takes two hours to set up the market and one hour to pack it up.

Parking is another concern for Smith. Market shoppers fill the 500 parking spaces there and crowd out regular visitors to the Domes, he said.

Saturday attendance at the Domes has declined since the market started there, from 58,852 for 23 weeks in the 2013-’14 season to a low of 31,850 in the 2016-’17 season, according to Smith’s report. Dome attendance on Saturdays rebounded to 40,407 in the 2017-’18 season.

Attendance at the Domes in the 2016-’17 season was affected by the closing of the three domes at Mitchell Park for safety reasons in February 2017. The domes reopened later that year after repairs were made.      

Smith said the county could charge higher rental rates for the annex of up to $3,500 on Saturdays if the market was not there. The county also would collect commissions from sales of food and beverages at those events under its agreement with Zilli Hospitality Group, he said.

 

 

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