The Athens Farmers Market is lobbying for the city to spend $5 million of taxpayer money to dramatically expand its operations, but city officials aren’t buying it, arguing that it’s not the government’s place to bolster the market’s expansion efforts.
“We can’t just take taxpayers’ funds and throw it at businesses,” said Mayor Paul Wiehl. “I don’t think they have enough money for that. They’re farmers.”
The organization has grown into an Athens staple from humble beginnings. In the summer of 1972, it was just a handful of local farmers spending their weekends in metered parking spaces trying to make some extra money. In need of a permanent location, the Farmers Market asked the city to move to East State Street, a place the market has called home since the 1980s. The city adopted in an ordinance setting aside a portion of the East State Street Recreation Center for the market, at 1000 E. State St.
Market organizers don’t think that their current location is suitable for their size any more.
“We would like to have the city assist us in finding a new home,” said Kip Parker, manager of the Athens Farmers Market. Parker added that in the past, the market has attracted more than 100 vendors, but many have not participated in recent years because of a lack of space.
There are about 90 today, Parker said, adding that more vendors occupy the sidelines waiting for a space to open up for them. He didn’t give a specific number of vendors the market would like to accommodate in the space it wants the city to acquire.
In recent weeks, Farmers Market representatives requested help in finding a new, more spacious location for the market.
“We could use more room,” added Carolyn Sutherland, booth coordinator for the Athens County Master Gardener Association. Her organization had a booth at the market for the past ten years.
“There are people on the waiting list who can’t be there because there isn’t enough space,” Sutherland said.
The Farmers Market has been searching for more suitable properties, but organizers have said that on its own, the market can’t afford either of the two places that they have scoped out.
“We found a spot we like farther down State Street,” Parker said. “One problem is that land is expensive, and the city doesn’t have money. We don’t have money. And that’s a big problem.”
Wiehl said the Farmers Market has requested $5 million to spend on buying a property and creating a new venue. The mayor added that this would include creating a new structure, as well as maintaining electricity and water.
The other option, Wiehl said, was the market purchasing the land itself, and then donating it to the city.
The market doesn’t want to own the land regardless, Parker said, because it’s too expensive and their “tuition is already high enough.”
“It’s very expensive to have a place with parking, electricity, bathrooms,” Sutherland added. “Ideally a multi purpose site that the city could use for other events would benefit everybody because we don’t operate every day.”
Still, Wiehl said he will remain firm that the market’s proposals have so far are “just not in the city’s best interest.”
“The expectation is that land is cheap and the city can afford it,” he said.