Devon Community Market: Part 2. The 2014 Market

The disastrous trial run of the Devon Community Market in 2013 made it clear that the market would require a complete retooling for its 2014 season. Mary Arents was hired as part-time Market Manager. A savvy, personable young woman, Mary recognized that community buy-in would be critical to the market’s success, and she used social media  to engage with the community in her efforts to produce a market that would meet residents’ desires and earn their support.

Beginning in April 2014, Mary sought community input on the kinds of merchandise, vendors, and entertainers residents wanted as well as opinions on what didn’t work for the community in 2013. She encouraged neighbors to send her e-mails and responded promptly. Mary impressed many residents with her passion for the project and her efforts to recruit the kinds of vendors requested.

Residents clearly indicated a desire for locally-grown and organic produce, a wider variety of vendors, locally-produced goods, a seating area so people could eat prepared foods on the premises, more trashcans, less noise, and child-oriented entertainers, such as puppeteers or magicians. The lack of parking was also an issue. [Customers could park free in the small bank parking lot across Devon, but would have to walk a half block east or west to a crosswalk in order to safely cross the street.]  Mary responded enthusiastically. She noted that some decisions had already been made, but the community could help shape the market for 2014 and then afterwards help her “dream big” for 2015.

Mary agreed that the noise from the soundstage was an issue, and instead proposed using some of the City’s funding to make the LINK program and Double Value Coupons available. [Double Value Coupons give LINK participants matching funds to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other fresh food at Farmers Markets throughout the City.]  She also asked for volunteers to help create family-oriented programming and to support the market in other ways, such as distributing flyers and postcards, serving as greeters and counters, helping with set-up and take-down, etc.

The only question for which there was no answer was why the market had to be held in the parking lot rather than at Warren Park or another venue; it was clear that this decision had been made at a higher level.

Mary lined up an impressive array of vendors, some on a rotating basis, including vendors of hot foods as well as snacks. Announced vendors included (an asterisk denotes a rotating vendor):

All Natural Chicago* (flatbread crackers, fruit preserves, granolas)
Avon Products* (beauty products)
Bread Shoppe  (breads, focaccia)
C&D Farms  (meats, eggs; vendor left at the end of July)
Chaat for Champions (hot Indian snack food)
CHJ Imoja Gardens (organic vegetables)
City Fresh*
The Coffee Shop*  (iced coffee & tea)
D & R Gardens & Orchards
Edible Experience (kosher foods)
Elevate Energy* (energy efficiency expertise)
Farmer Friendly Farm to Table Foods
Feast & Imbibe (hot food)
Going Green Science Lab
Headstash Roasting Co.* (iced coffee & tea)
Heartland Health Centers*  (health insurance enrollment assistance)
Holy Spirit Life Learning Center (candles & plants)
Katic Breads
La Farine Bakery
LINK (food assistance)
Lou’s Old Fashioned* (pickles & coffee cakes)
Ludwig Farmstead Creamery
MarGREAT Lemon Shake-ups
Mike Tipp, Scroll Saw Craftsman*
Milt’s BBQ (kosher)
Misericordia Hearts & Flour Bakery
Mizrahi Grill (food truck)
Moneydart Global Services* (financial services information)
Music House (entertainment)
Northtown Public Library (storytime and crafts for children)
Paradise Products
Patel Handicrafts*
Patyk Farms (vegetables, plants)
Performing Arts Limited (entertainment)
Presence Saint Francis Hospital  (colorectal cancer prevention)
Red Wheelbarrow Literary Society
Relish Chicago, Inc.
Rogers Park West Ridge Historical Society*  (local history)
Ruff Haus & Co. (pet boutique services)
Schmooz the Clown
Simply Simchas (kosher popcorn and cotton candy)
Soul Vegetarian (hot food)
Splat Toys* (toys that go ‘splat!’)
Tamariel* (face painting and henna)
Ted’s Fresh Market
Townline Organic Farm
Tu Ritmo Dance Studio (Zumba)

At this writing, only four vendors on the above list are confirmed for the 2015 Market (Avon, the Coffee Shop, Going Green Science Lab, and Milt’s BBQ). Among the 2014 entertainers, Music House, Performing Arts Limited, Northtown Library, and Schmooz the Clown will return. None of the farmers from 2014 will be back (per the Market’s Web site, devoncommunitymarket.org).

Mary worked hard to promote and staff the market. The location again proved to be a huge drawback. As a volunteer I heard many complaints about the difficulty of driving into the parking lot on the south side of the street during rush-hour traffic, or running the risk of theft or a ticket by leaving one’s car idling on the street to avoid paying the parking meters. More than one person complained about the unfairness of having to pay the meters to spend 10 minutes in the market buying produce. Farmers markets tend to charge higher prices than grocery stores because the food is fresher, the additional expense of paying the meters adds to the cost of the food, thus discouraging customers.

To Mary’s credit, the number of service agency tents was held to a minimum. She concentrated on booking vendors offering a variety of merchandise that would appeal to most neighborhood residents.

Some vendors did not show up every time they were scheduled, and some didn’t show at all. A few began packing before the market closed. Some cancelled. One week only about half the vendors came, and the market looked forlorn and deserted. The September 10 market was cancelled because of rain, thus shortening the season to 10 dates. Attendance was sparse.

At the end of the season, the market was declared a success. In her newsletter issued after the final market on September 17, Ald. Silverstein wrote: “This Wednesday was the last Devon Community Market of the season. This year’s market was a tremendous success, with more than 4,000 residents streaming in from all over the city and beyond to sample everything the 50th Ward has to offer! I was also very pleased to be able to bring in farmers from Michigan, Illinois and Indiana to provide our neighborhood with fresh local berries, vegetables, meat, eggs and cheese.”  I questioned the attendance figure, but Mary wrote that she had stationed volunteers at both parking lot entry points to record the number of visitors.

I used FOIA to get the official attendance, income, and expense records for the 2014 market. They are instructive, and offer clear proof that the Devon Community Market in its current format is not working for either the community or the vendors. The City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events maintains official records for most City markets, although those records for the Devon Community Market are incomplete, not providing sales by vendor, for example. But I was able to obtain LINK sales and attendance figures for 2014, and they are dismal.

LINK sales totaled only $735.50, with a low the second week of just $18.75; the LINK high was on September 3, when $157.75 was recorded.  Of $86 in Double Value Coupons distributed, only $27 were redeemed. Total expenses for the market were recorded as $4,992; most of this was the $3,500 charge for the LINK technology and staffing support, with the rest attributed to Mary’s salary ($1,192) and signage ($300). No LINK sales or other data were recorded for the final market on September 17.  In fact, that date does not even appear in the DCASE records for the Devon Community Market.

Weekly attendance was reported at 75-100 persons (a total of 750 to 1,000 people), a far cry from the 4,000 claimed by Mary and  the alderman. The lower figure is probably accurate; I volunteered at or attended all but two markets, and the market was rarely crowded with shoppers, although many people brought children for the entertainment and kids’ activities.

Given the poor sales using the LINK card, and the low attendance numbers, one can assume that non-food vendors did not do well. With set-up and take-down, as well as  five hours on duty, it’s a long day for vendors, and, for many, a long drive. A five-hour market that attracts so few customers is a waste of time for farmers and others who expect to make money. This may be why so few vendors agreed to return for 2015.

I encountered resistance and delay from DCASE when I tried to obtain the Market’s  records, and was told that some of the information I requested was not under DCASE control. That information included vendor sales figures. Vendors pay for their space and are required to report their total sales (both cash and credit card, rounded to the nearest dollar) at the end of each day to the market manager, so the lack of such information in the DCASE records is strange.

I find it impossible to believe that DCASE is unaware of or has no interest in whether individual markets are profitable, yet it’s not at all surprising that the lack of transparency at every level of City government makes these public records difficult to access. This may be especially true in cases where, as with the Devon Community Market, the reports from those with an interest in declaring the market a triumph differ so markedly from the official records available.

A PDF of the spreadsheet received from DCASE is below.

Efforts to locate accurate vendor sales figures for both the 2013 and 2014 markets are continuing.

Devon Market 2014

Thursday: The Devon Community Market 2015: Progress or the Same Old Mistakes?

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