Letters to the Editor

An opportunity to preserve historic property and enhance local economy

An open letter to Friday Harbor Mayor David Jones and the Town Council:

My wife and I own a 20-acre farm on Waldron Island. We operate a small market garden on about an acre of that. We have been selling our produce at the San Juan Farmers Market every year since its start in the mid-'80s, almost 25 years now.

From its small beginnings at the Inter-West Bank parking lot through moves across Argyle Avenue to the lot where Ace Hardware now stands and to temporary sites at 150 Nichols St. and then Friday Harbor Freight, to our current site at the courthouse parking lot, the market has steadily grown into a very successful venue for county farmers to sell their produce directly to eager customers.

With the addition of our Winter Market seven years ago, first at the flea market and then expanding to the Grange Hall and now at the high school as part of their Experience Food Project, the San Juan Farmers Market offers our customers fresh, local produce all year around.

Because the market was outgrowing both its summer and winter sites and did not have any long-term use agreement for either of them, several years ago an effort was begun to secure a dedicated, long-term home where both summer and winter markets could be held and extension of the market to additional days would be possible. The Agricultural Guild was formed with that as its first goal, and the proposal to locate the market at the 150 Nichols St. site is the result of its efforts.

When the county Land Bank budgeted money to help fund the project, we began to think this might actually be possible. When the Town Council agreed to join the effort to purchase the property and the Ag Guild and Farmers Market Association pledged to raise the additional funds necessary to renovate the building and develop the site, it seemed like all that was left to do was dotting the i's and crossing the t's. And then as reaction from a few vocal businessmen and women hit the opinion pages of the local media, it all began to look like it was too good to be true.

I am, frankly, dumbfounded by most of the negative reaction to this project. This kind of public-private partnership is the darling of conservatives everywhere. For two levels of government and a private non-profit to come together to fund something they all deem desirable seems like a win-win-win situation to me.

The arguments against the project have been forceful and vociferous, but are mostly specious. Although they seem convincing on the surface, they do not stand up to scrutiny.

The complaint that the town's purchase of the property would take it off the tax rolls is technically true, but the Ag Guild would pay the town an equal lease amount, meaning there would be no loss of revenue to the town. The Ag Guild would manage the site and raise revenue to cover the lease and other operating expenses by renting space to farmers to sell their goods and by renting the facility as a whole for events. Any shortfall in revenue, which is in fact forecast during the startup, would be covered by the Ag Guild, not the town.

In that the town is not looking to make a profit from its lease of the site, the farmers could be seen to be getting a subsidy. Vendor fees would purposely be kept low so as to not price smaller farmers out and to encourage new farm enterprises to join. Although the Town of Friday Harbor is not in the habit of doing so, cities, counties and port districts everywhere regularly compete with each other to lure businesses and governmental agencies by offering tax breaks and low-cost leases.

This leads to specious argument No. 2, that public money should not be used to subsidize market vendors who might compete with small businesses downtown. Public tax dollars are spent on many things, from fire departments to affordable housing, that are deemed to be for the public good. Farmers markets are increasingly being seen in this light not only because of the access they provide to locally grown food and the sense of community they help build, but because they have been shown to enhance local economies. They are being located into downtowns everywhere to help stimulate business.

A recent study of farmers markets in Wisconsin showed that nearby businesses benefited more than the market vendors themselves. In Waukesha, while the vendors brought in about $310,000, the surrounding businesses saw an increase of $340,000 in revenues. Other studies have shown similar results.

Furthermore, if the town doesn't buy the 150 Nichols St. property, someone else will. Whatever that new owner should decide to put on the site, be it condos, office space, restaurants, gift shops or real estate offices, it will just add to the already existing glut of condos, office space, etc., which will definitely compete with existing businesses.

It seems to me that a thriving downtown Farmers Market, where most of what is being sold is locally grown produce and which draws crowds of people to the neighborhood, would be the best result for struggling downtown shops. The multiplier effect for locally grown produce is the highest possible. When I sell $100 of vegetables, it all goes into my pocket to be spent at the hardware store, the grocery store, the gas station or the fuel dock, the occasional restaurant or to help my daughter through college. When the grocery store sells $100 of California produce, $90 of it immediately leaves the island to pay the distributors in Seattle, the trucking company, the packing house in California and a little bit of it to the farmer. Only $10 of it stays on the island to circulate through the local economy.

Specious argument No. 3, that the purchase price of the property is too high, comparable properties have sold for less. I would argue that there are no comparable properties. This is the only one for sale of interest to the Town, the Land Bank and the Ag Guild, that would be suitable for a Farmers Market. Ultimately, the value of a piece of property or anything else in a free market system is what a willing seller and a willing buyer agree it to be. In this case, the seller has come down considerably from what was originally being asked.

Spurious argument No. 4, the Farmers Market should just move out to the fairgrounds. It doesn't seem to have occurred to those who suggest this that the biggest problem with this idea is that for a week at the height of the growing and selling season for the farmers, there is a county fair going on at the fairgrounds. Trying to hold a Wednesday and Saturday Market at the fairgrounds during the fair would be disastrous for the farmers. If you think parking is tight downtown, try finding a parking spot anywhere near the fairgrounds Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning during the fair.

Another spurious argument being made is that the Land Bank should not be buying up commercial property in the town. Historic preservation and farmland preservation are both stated goals of the Land Bank. Buying this property and preserving the historic building on it certainly fits the former. As for the latter, in the last decade or so, farmland preservation groups have realized that you can't preserve farmland without also preserving farmers. Farmland doesn't stay farmland unless it is farmed, and it won't be farmed unless farmers can make a living at it. Helping to provide a place for small farmers to sell their goods could be a vital strategy to sustain the county's agricultural economy.

The concerns expressed over the lack of parking for this location are the only one I think has merit. It has been a concern for the Ag Guild and the vendors all along, and the Ag Guild is pursuing a number of options and has pledged to work with the town and other downtown businesses to develop long-term solutions to the problem. But I think this issue has also been somewhat overblown.

We have all been spoiled by the ease of parking around the courthouse site. This is a rarity. Few farmers markets have much, if any, dedicated parking. Friends who attend markets in Seattle tell me they always have to park blocks away and walk into the market. I've watched folks toting baskets and canvas bags stream into the very busy Ganges Saturday Market on Saltspring Island from wherever they could find parking on nearby streets and unused bank and church parking lots.

I hope you can see that any potential problems with this project are far outweighed by the possibilities for improved accessibility, diversity and vitality this new public space could bring to the downtown.

I urge the Town Council not to miss this one-time opportunity to partner with the county Land Bank and the Agricultural Guild to preserve this historic property and enhance the economy and livability of the town and the islands.

Joel Thorson
Waldron Island

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