Devon Community Market, Part 3

The Devon Community Market is in its third year of operation. Four 2015 markets have occurred at this writing. It’s clear that the mistakes that plagued the first two years continue.

First, the market is not serving the needs or interests of most residents. The purpose of a farmers market is to bring local farmers and local consumers together. The purpose of the Devon Community Market is to bring local merchants and local consumers together. Farmers are not intended to be the prime attraction, and the merchants for whom the market was designed have overwhelmingly declined to participate. Yet the powers-that-be are determined to continue with a failed concept that is not supported by the community. This is a major mistake.

Only three farmers signed on this year, and one has already departed, having agreed to participate for just three weeks. Contrast this with the Logan Square Farmers Market, which has signed 30 farmers, or the Andersonville Farmers Market, or the Glenwood Sunday Market in Rogers Park, each with more than a dozen farmers in addition to other vendors. Logan Square, for example, has 20 vendors selling ready-to-eat foods, and a dozen bakeries. These numbers do not include rotating vendors. West Ridge residents support these farmers’ markets, and want the same kind of market in our neighborhood.

The poor vendor recruitment and retention at the Devon Community Market is a direct result of several ongoing problems: (a) a poor reputation (it’s well-known among vendors that nobody makes any money because of poor attendance); (b) inconsistent and unclear leadership at the helm; (c) inability to articulate a clear vision for the market and execute it successfully; and (d) lack of community involvement and support.

As noted in my post about the 2014 market, DCASE (the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, overall coordinator of the event) claims not to have any record of gross sales at past markets. A FOIA request for revenue information on the 2014 market didn’t yield any vendor sales records, but I was able to learn that total LINK sales for 2014’s ten markets came to only $735. Assuming the vendors did as well—and that’s a stretch—the gross sales would have been under $1,500 for ten weeks. No wonder vendors won’t sign on—or return.

Add to that the poor attendance—official reports estimated 75 to 100 people per week—and it makes no sense for any vendor to sign on. Presenting outstanding local entertainment drew crowds to the first two markets this year–as did booking Milt’s BBQ—it sold out—but was there any other vendor whose sales were boosted as a result? From what I saw, Milt’s customers came for Milt’s. Period. They bought, they ate, they enjoyed the entertainment, and they left. Another food vendor making a first visit that same week did not return the following week, although they were on the schedule. A bakery from the first week’s market also chose not to return. Vendors without a following simply don’t make enough money to come back.

[Jazz musician Vernon Ingram performed superbly at the last two markets, but there were few customers to enjoy his performances.]

Leadership is an ongoing problem. The West Ridge Chamber of Commerce has a new executive director, and the market’s manager is also new, hired only a few months ago. Both individuals worked hard on this year’s market, but lacked enough time to recruit vendors, most of whom participate in winter markets in other neighborhoods. They make their plans for the following summer at the same time that West Ridge organizers move on to other projects. A market that drops off its sponsors’ radar  beween September and April is doomed to failure when it comes to recruiting vendors.

The lack of continuity and vision as well as the learning curve occasioned by staff turnover have impacted the market negatively. Both the manager and the Chamber’s executive director have many other responsibilities, and once summer is gone the market is set aside for more immediate concerns. The lack of community involvement in the market shows most clearly in the failure to recruit residents to work with the Chamber over the ensuing months to develop the following year’s market. Many residents take to social media to express their frustrations and anger about the market; rather than recognizing those residents as potential supporters who demand a market worth supporting, the organizers choose to ignore them and to wait until Spring to begin crafting the market themselves, thus further alienating residents.

There is no indication that any of the sponsors has a firm vision for the market or the commitment to see that vision through. The concept of a community market, rather than a farmers market, has proved a failure. Residents have overwhelmingly rejected the idea. Those same residents have a vision for what they want, but no way to implement it because they are excluded from the organizing efforts. It’s unclear why the market’s sponsors and organizers resist community input. What is clear is that until the community becomes a stakeholder, the market will continue to fail.

The 2015 market is a case study in how not to involve the community. No information about the market was available until late June. Communication since has been spotty. The market’s blog is unused, and the list of vendors, published weekly at the last minute, has yet to be complete or correct. This suggests a lack of both adequate staffing and overall coordination. There appear to be too many chiefs. To be fair, this may be because the market’s manager was hired so late, but it also indicates that the market for 2015 was simply not planned until too late in the year, and then too many people tried to do too much work in too short a time. Producing a market is a difficult undertaking, and needs to begin well in advance, with clear goals and lines of authority as well as adequate staffing.

The community has been demanding a better, more responsive market for the past two years. This year’s market has been uneven, but, in my opinion, worth supporting because strong efforts have been made to improve it. The mistakes of the past two years have stacked the deck against those efforts. The market has generated two years of complaints from its potential customers, and vendors have not returned because of disappointing sales.

Next year has to be different.

Coming: Changing the Market for 2016

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