Multiple vendors and downtown stakeholders were concerned about what a change in control of the Waukesha Farmers Market would do for the popular event.
Many said the market has grown under the Waukesha Downtown Business Association in the three-plus years the organization has managed it, significantly increasing its vendor base and building a strong relationship with farmers.
"If it's not broken, what are we trying to fix?" Norm Bruce, president of the WDBA, asked the common council in response to a request to put the Waukesha Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department in charge of the farmers market this year and beyond. "If there's a problem, I haven't been able to see it."
Neither did a majority of the common council.
In a split vote, the common council voted on Thursday, Feb. 18, against giving the parks department ownership of the market, allowing Bruce and his team at the WDBA to begin making preparations for the 2016 market.
Favoring city control
Six aldermen — Kathleen Cummings, Aaron Perry, Andy Reiland, Daniel Manion and Cory and Eric Payne — voted for the parks department to take over.
Reiland made the referral and had it co-signed by multiple aldermen saying the parks department would give the market long-term stability. WPRF Department Director Ron Grall was present at the meeting but did not speak. But City Administrator Kevin Lahner had previously said the department would have taken over management duties had the council made the change.
Perry said the city running the market would be a benefit to the taxpayer.
"We can make some money and reinvest in the downtown," Perry said.
Manion said he didn't feel the process in transferring management responsibilities to the WDBA in 2012 was done correctly by former Mayor Jeff Scrima. The downtown Business Improvement District, which previously ran the market, officially disbanded in 2013 following its former executive director resigning after citing a "hostile work environment" and after a new board looked at changing its organization's funding model.
Waukesha NOW poll:Who should manage the Waukesha Farmers Market?
Not sold on idea
But after 20 people spoke — some for and against a change — on the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting, many council members questioned the logic behind a switch.
Alderman Vance Skinner said the market's growth "doesn't wreak of instability" and Alderman Peter Bartels said the event should remain in the private sector.
Alderman Joe Pieper said his constituency doesn't care who runs the market, but just that it takes place every Saturday morning.
Alderman Steve Johnson, a member of the parks, recreation and forestry board, said the proposed management change had never been vetted at the board level, something he said is a problem.
"I don't know if that's a really good idea to have this thrown at them at this point," Johnson said.
Alderman Terry Thieme expressed concerns about the impact the market would have on department staffing.
"I have no doubt if the Park and Rec did run a farmers market they'd do a bang-up job," Thieme said. "But that is going to take up staff time. What is going to suffer with staff time that now has to be dedicated to a farmers market?"
Thieme added a management switch should be discussed when departments go through their budgets since it's a monetary issue.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, speakers were also split on the issue.
Susie Taylor, co-owner of Taylor's Peoples Park restaurant and vice president of the WDBA, said the current leadership has gained the respect of its vendors and called it "one of the best in the state."
Genie Carlson of Wind Lake, a vendor at the market, said she has previous experience running a market in Milwaukee for many years and said putting government in charge would be a mistake.
According to the WDBA, more than 700 volunteer hours were put into the 2015 market — a point Carlson alluded to in her comments.
"When the city has to have people monitor an event, it costs the taxpayer's money," Carlson said. "There's 700 hours that the taxpayers have to pay for, if not more. ... Let the businessmen who have a vested interest in this community try to be successful, run it."
But Catherine Huelsman, general manager of Berg Management, a property management company in downtown, said since the market was previously run by the downtown Business Improvement District, a taxing district within downtown, it should have went to the parks department.
"It was a BID asset with city resources," Huelsman said. "It should have remained a city asset."
For Nathan Zimmerman, whose booth The Sharp Brothers has been at the farmers market for the past four years, the uncertainty created by the ongoing debate was more of an issue than who runs the market.
Last year, management of the market had been questioned before the WDBA retained ownership of the market after the council debated whether other organizations should run the event. With the current debate, Zimmerman felt frustrated by uncertainty once again this year.
"It is completely ridiculous every year I have to wait for a bunch of adults to finish their infighting and petty squabbling to determine my livelihood," said Zimmerman, who was, however, in favor of the parks department taking over. "There are other markets that would love to have us and taking another option is looking more attractive every year."
According to documents provided by Bruce, the WDBA made $17,031.64 from the 2015 market. The WDBA brought in $35,130 from vendors, but also spent $18,098.36 on advertising, printing, miscellaneous and for the on-site market manager. Bruce said that money goes toward marketing for WDBA-sponsored events.