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West Side Market tenants worry 2021 will be more of the same | Doug Trattner reports

West Side Market Tenant Association president Don Whitaker says the city has not reached out to the consultant it hired.

CLEVELAND — It seems like just yesterday we all were celebrating the West Side Market’s centennial birthday with a splashy gala, celebrity chefs and positive vibes. But here we are, eight years later, and vendors, shoppers and casual visitors all are dealing with the same issues that have been plaguing the public market for decades.

And that was before the pandemic.

The latest salvo in this saga is news that the City of Cleveland, which owns and manages the property, has hired a consulting firm to help develop a plan to improve the market and better position it for the next 100 years. To many watchers, that proposal sounds a lot like the dreaded: “I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help.” But others are optimistic that this time might be different.

That was the collective sentiment of Don Whitaker, owner of D.W. Whitaker Meats, Tom McIntyre, owner of Kate’s Fish, and Gary Thomas, owner of Ohio City Pasta. After speaking directly with the consulting group hired by the city, Whitaker believes that the needs of all interested stakeholders will be taken into consideration.

Before getting bogged down in all the sticky details, it’s imperative to emphasize that the beloved West Side Market – a complex civic, economic and cultural asset – is run (not just owned) by the City of Cleveland. While there was a time and place for that sort of public supervision, that era ended decades ago. Not only does a clear majority of vendors agree that the time has come for the city to hand over management of the market, but local legislators do as well.

“It is still my contention that, like many public markets across America, we should evolve the market to remain City owned, but to have a nonprofit model of management,” argues Kerry McCormack, Cleveland City Councilman of Ward 3, where the market is situated. “This would mean that a nonprofit, with its only mission being the wellbeing of the West Side Market and its vendors, would run the day to day operations. This model has been proven to be successful in public markets here in Ohio and around the country.”

McCormack has explained his hopes and eventual plans, should market management change, in detail. Read those plans here:

Echoing that sentiment is Thomas, who has been a staple at the West Side Market for 30 years.

“Something has to click with the city for them to get engaged and see this as the asset that it really is,” Thomas says. “I don’t expect the city to understand how to run a public market. They’ve got their hands full, they have a lot of other things going on. They should put it in the hands of someone whose specialty is that.”

Some have floated the name of Cleveland Metroparks, led by Brian Zimmerman, under whose leadership the parks system has expanded and excelled.

Whether or not that tectonic shift of management ever occurs, vendors have a laundry list of other pressing concerns that they say will help the market attract more vendors and provide a better product to the public. Currently, according to Whitaker, who also serves as president of the West Side Market Tenants Association, vacancies inside the main market hall stand at 17 percent. Next door, in the produce annex, they run considerably higher at 60 percent. While there are myriad factors causing such a trend, which agreeably has accelerated during the pandemic, insiders say an obsolete and convoluted lease structure is to blame for much of it.

“I think there’s some low-hanging fruit,” says Thomas. “They can change the rent structure. I think the way it’s set up right now with different stands being charged different rents is antiquated.”

Thomas is referring to provisions that charge vendors different rents based on the types of food they sell, primarily fresh versus cooked and/or prepared.

Another curious and maddening feature of the lease agreements, according to tenants, is the fact that every term is for a period of one year.

“Even the most established tenants in the West Side Market are all on a one-year lease,” says McIntyre. “The city only offers a one-year lease. We need multi-year leases so we can invest in the building.”

For three years, McIntyre has had grand plans to open a new retail shop separate and apart from Kate’s Fish. In this prime corner spot, McIntyre intends to install a kitchen and prepare New England-style seafood specialties like clam chowder, fried clams, lobster rolls, fried perch dinners and steamed whole lobster. Unfortunately, most banks are leery to loan businesses money to invest based on a one-year lease, he says.

Conversely, a one-year lease might be too long of a commitment for others. Consider the early-stage entrepreneur or rising-star chef hoping to break out with a hot new concept. Given the number of vacancies inside and out, stalls can be utilized for fleeting pop-up restaurants, seasonal produce stands and even one-day events like cookbook signings and cooking demos.

Other so-called low-hanging fruit includes indoor seating areas for shoppers and families, permitting on-site alcohol sales and consumption and improving the general mix of food offerings to feature more prepared foods.

Invariably, any intelligent discussion of the West Side Market, which is closing in on its 110th birthday, must consider the situation outside its doors. Not only has Ohio City, its home turf, changed dramatically over the past few decades, but the world at large is vastly different than it was in 1912, when the market first opened. How can one expect an old-fashioned public market to compete in the age of Amazon, Whole Foods and DoorDash.

“That’s a huge piece of the puzzle, but we also just don’t compete,” argues Thomas. “A lot of times we’re putting locks on the doors when people are on their way home. You don’t need to hire a consultant for thousands of dollars to say, Hey, you might want to stay open later.”

Editor's Note: The below story aired on February 21, 2020

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