ST. PETERSBURG — Artisan breads, fresh fruit, even delicacies like Italian truffles are among the foods and crafts that will draw big crowds downtown today as the Saturday Morning Market reopens for the season.
In its 12th year, the downtown market held weekly in the parking lot of Al Lang Stadium on First Street has become one of the largest in the South and one of the city’s most cherished events.
The market’s esteem in St. Petersburg might offer a glint of hope to others that have struggled with conflicts about parking, zoning and complaints from neighbors.
For Palm Harbor’s year-round Sunday market, complaints resulted in a move to a better spot downtown.
In the case of the fledgling Clearwater Gateway Farmers Market, though, it means not coming back for a second season this fall.
The problem for grocers like Nature’s Food Patch and Sav A Lot in Cleveland Plaza was market patrons filling up their customers’ parking spaces on their busiest day of the week despite being directed to other nearby lots.
“We handed out pamphlets with parking instructions asking them to park there,” said Sandra Lyth, CEO of the Intercultural Advocacy Institute and Hispanic Outreach Center, which ran the market.
“People park where they want to park and we had a number of customers that we know shopped in both places; they shopped at Nature’s Food Patch and at the market.”
When the market’s management asked Clearwater’s Downtown Development Board for $15,000 to bring it back this year, the owners of the Cleveland Plaza and Nature’s Food Patch objected.
“We had a number of customers that said they were driving around and around for 15 minutes trying to find a parking spot,” said Nature’s Food Patch store director Laurie Powers-Shamone, adding that her Saturday sales went down 8 percent during market season.
Lyth’s board of directors considered alternate sites; one lacked sufficient power sources, another was outside the Community Redevelopment Area, which would disqualify them from city funding.
An idea to hire off-duty police officers to deter people from parking wasn’t affordable or particularly desirable.
Needing the city’s financial support to restart this fall and finding no workable solution, the board this week decided to cancel the event.
Farmers markets can be a great benefit for local businesses, but it’s a delicate balance, said David Allbritton, head of Clearwater’s downtown development board.
For instance, Clearwater’s downtown farmers market created concern among local merchants when it operated on Friday nights, blocking off part of the street with vendors that were too close to storefronts, Allbritton said.
When that market cut down to just Wednesday afternoons, store owners welcomed the extra foot traffic at an otherwise slow time, he said.
“We want to support a farmers market, but yet we don’t want it to be at the detriment of other businesses down there,” Allbritton said.
For a farmers market in Palm Harbor, it wasn’t being too close to businesses, but rather an aggravated neighbor that prompted a move away from the market’s longtime spot at the North Pinellas Historical Museum on Curlew Road. Noise complaints about music led to an assertion the property wasn’t zoned for a commercial market, which turned out to be true, unbeknownst to market manager Barb Haley.
The market moved downtown to Pop Stansell Park in June. Haley says it has turned out to be a better location for pedestrians and a good draw that benefits local merchants.
The Saturday Morning Market has had its share of venue changes and a few complaints from neighbors.
The city blocked off part of the roadway at Central Avenue and Second Street when the market started in 2002.
That space soon became cramped, and former Mayor Rick Baker helped secure the parking lot near Al Lang Stadium where the market continues to thrive.
As the market grew, manager Gail Eggeman said she received some complaints from businesses about market patrons taking up too much parking or vendors detracting from their sales.
Today no one seems to deny the estimated 10,000 people who come to the market on Saturdays are a big positive for the city. “We said we wanted to be the heart of St. Pete and I think we’ve been pretty successful with that,” Eggeman said.