After the last vendors collapsed their tents and packed their unsold produce at the Vancouver Farmers Market for the last time this season on Sunday, market workers celebrated a record-setting season.
An estimated 420,000 shoppers attended in 2019, the market’s 30th year, shattering last year’s record by about 65,000, said Jordan Boldt, executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Market.
“I was hoping we’d break 400,000 this year,” said Boldt. “I was really excited to see that.”
But while attendance continues to grow, early talks in Vancouver City Hall suggest that the market may need to move from its current location when its contract with the city ends in about five years.
One possible location: the Waterfront Gateway Properties, a 6.4-acre section of city-owned land south of City Hall.
While Boldt said he’s unsure about the idea of moving the market, a John Collum, principle planner for the city, said it would improve the market’s longevity and ease of operations.
Breaking the record
To tally attendance numbers, a worker walks the market every half hour while holding a clicker and counting the number of people. Boldt said that 30 minutes is the average time a person spends at the market, and it’s the most accurate count they can get, but he acknowledged that it’s imperfect.
It wasn’t until after Labor Day, when market attendance tends to taper, that Boldt realized the market was on track to break the record when he noticed the number of visitors decreased slower than usual.
“Last year was a record for us,” he said. “This year blew it out of the water.”
Boldt said the attendance spike was likely due to a variety of factors: increasing population, the market’s new location and good weather.
The Farmers Market in 2019 moved part of its booths from Sixth Street to a new location on Eighth Street, creating a T-formation with Esther Street. The new space made the market easier to navigate, Boldt said.
The biggest factor in the attendance spike was the good weather, Boldt said. He said he remembers rain in only five or six out of the 33 weekends in total for the market’s season, which ran from March 16 to Oct. 27.
“It was one of the best I can remember in my 10 years with the market,” he said. “There was much better and more consistent vendor attendance. More customers showed up and appreciated that.”
On any given weekend, about 155 vendors set up at the farmers market, he said; 26 new vendor organizations attended this year.
Although Boldt and his staff don’t collect revenue numbers, he said vendors reported increasingly better sales this year.
“I think vendors had a really great experience,” he said.
For the next five years, Boldt said, the market will stay in its new spot on Eighth and Esther streets.
But city officials have begun to discuss the market’s future, including possibly moving it a few blocks away to the Waterfront Gateway Properties, a section of city-owned land north of the BNSF Railway berm, south of West Sixth Street and west of Columbia Street. The property currently holds City Hall, the Hilton Hotel and the Convention Center.
Esther Street, to the south of the market, also runs through the middle of the property.
Collum said moving the market is one of many ideas under discussion aimed at keeping the market downtown and improving it.
Building a permanent location for the farmers market in the waterfront gateway area could include a designated building, storage space and street space, he said. It would also likely allow the market to help design its own space.
“We’re at the table,” Boldt said. “We don’t really have a dog in the fight either way. We want to retain the market’s place, but the city is rapidly changing, and the market is going to change with it.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the market attempted to root itself in a permanent spot. Between 2005 and 2007, an indoor farmers market attempted to establish a permanent presence at Esther Short Commons, 555 W. 8th St, but it fell flat.
“It was a really sound idea, but it just didn’t really align with everything else around it,” said Boldt, who joined the market years later.
But now, with increased attendance numbers, the idea could gain new traction.
“Maybe we would return to that subject in the list of ‘what-ifs,’ ” Collum said.
The city has not formally met with Boldt or other market officials, but Boldt said he and market staff have been attending city meetings to hear the ideas develop.
Collum said any idea for the future of the market would be in collaboration with Boldt, but the city’s next move is to place a request for a master developer for the Waterfront Gateway Properties and hear what the developer would think of a permanent farmers market.
The city will select a master developer in fall 2020, Collum said.
“That’s when we’ll get more specific,” he said.
Boldt’s vision for the market’s future includes slower growth: a daily indoor market, perhaps open year-round for one day a week, he said.
“Will Vancouver support a year-round market?” Boldt said.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, the Vancouver Farmers Market is holding a one-day Harvest Market with about 50 vendors selling large-quantity of potatoes, squash and other foods for winter. It’s also focused on selling food for Thanksgiving meals.
“People use it to shop for Thanksgiving or to stock up,” Boldt said.