The downtown Janesville Farmers Market might have moved eventually, but moving this market season wasn’t what organizers wanted.
The market is relocating from its 15-year home along North Main Street to a new space—the recently completed town square that spans the Rock River in the heart of downtown.
Letters exchanged early this year between the city and the private, nonprofit farmers market reveal the market had wanted to forestall that move for at least a year. Market leadership formally asked the city to allow the market to stay put along North Main Street in 2021.
The city denied that request and instead pressed the market to move in time to open in the town square in May, according to the documents.
Farmers market manager Emily Arthur told The Gazette the market is optimistic its move eventually will grow the market and give a boost to the heart of a downtown that in the last half-decade has seen millions of dollars in private-side redevelopment.
City Manager Mark Freitag defended a “pull” he said he led early this year to relocate the market. He said the move is aimed at boosting programming and making ample use of the improved town square area—an amenity that cost the city $16.5 million and private stakeholders about $3.5 million in donations.
The move has created hard feelings among some new and longtime merchants along North Main Street who say they’re unhappy the long-running farmer’s market is abruptly moving.
They say the move will shift weekend foot traffic away from a corridor where storefront owners also have sunk millions into recent improvements.
Critics of the market’s move also say they’re worried the farmers market will dominate the use of the riverfront’s town square for 27 warm-weather Saturdays a year.
Courtney Perakis, an entrepreneur who plans in April to launch the Sugar Exchange, a new candy shop and classic soda fountain at renovated space at 119 N. Main St., said she had just signed a lease for space in early January when she heard the farmer’s market was moving.
Perakis said she wants to be optimistic about the market’s move, but her initial business plans for the Sugar Exchange were tied to the idea North Main Street hosted a farmers market that drew thousands of people.
Perakis said she might have altered business plans had she known the market was moving.
Perakis is a former financial adviser who has operated an investment office in downtown Janesville and in the past has taken an active role in downtown groups, including annual beer festival Flannel Fest. She’s helped plan and launch events aimed at boosting foot traffic downtown.
Perakis thinks the city’s plan to plug in a farmers market at the town square to quickly “activate” the space might be shortsighted.
“I’m very concerned with taking an activated event—the farmer’s market—that has been a staple, active event in downtown Janesville for 15 years and moving into a new space that we created for additional activation of downtown,” Perakis said. “I feel like that’s going to bottleneck our ability to host and bring other events into downtown Janesville on the weekends.”
A $20 million investment
The Gazette obtained letters that show a back and forth between the farmers market board and Freitag in late December and early January. In those exchanges, the farmers market asked for a one-year extension at North Main Street so the market had a chance to stabilize after financial losses it saw last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The market’s board felt the move, which the city proposed late last year, didn’t give the market enough time to plan for a major change.
The letters from the farmers market board, signed by market manager Emily Arthur and market board President Jessica Locher, tell the city: “We do not want to move to Town Square in 2021 and fail because we did not have the proper time to prepare for the move.”
The market cited concerns about increased costs the city proposed for use of the town square at a time when the market was still “in the red” from the year before, according to a letter dated Dec. 30.
Since then, the city and the market agreed to the city this year waiving some special event and use fees at the town square, an agreement both the city and market said is aimed to soften sticker shock tied to the market’s move.
But prior to that agreement, in a Jan. 14 response letter to the market, Freitag denied the farmers markets request to stay on North Main Street. Freitag wrote that “it is important to draw individuals to this (town square) area and demonstrate to the community that their $20 million (town square) investment is being actively programmed.”
Freitag also wrote that the market’s past location for more than a decade along North Main Street has been a bone of contention for business operators in other parts of the downtown.
Freitag wrote that for years he’s received “complaints from downtown business owners that placing the farmers market routinely on North Main Street offers an unfair advantage over those businesses located on South Main Street and West Milwaukee Street.”
Freitag wrote that it “would seem prudent” to encourage more foot traffic on the west side of the river this spring and summer while West Milwaukee Street businesses wrestle with street closures during reconstruction of the main thoroughfare from the river west to the Five Points intersection.
Freitag wrote in his letter that the city had informed the farmer’s market in early 2019 that the market would need to relocate to the town square after both sides of the park were complete.
In a Jan. 18 letter, the farmers market board told Freitag the board had an earlier understanding that the city would give the market until 2022 to move to the town square.
Freitag told The Gazette that since the city first committed to building the town square, he and other city officials have envisioned the riverfront as a central location that’s preferable for large-scale events that would require street closures.
Freitag said the city might be open to the farmer’s market locating in another park in future years, but he said that going forward, the city wants to shift away from closing north and south Main Street for routine events such as farmers markets.
He pointed out that the town square has streets with pop-up bollards that can block off traffic. He said the move eliminates weekly traffic closures on Main Street, which is designated as a local trucking route.
Freitag said since relocating the farmer’s market, the city hasn’t heard of conflicts between events being planned downtown or “bottlenecking” of the town square as a public space.
Freitag said he thinks multiple users can share town square space over weekends, even if the market sews up both festival streets during the morning and early afternoons on Saturdays for half the year.
“Are there 27 other weekend users that are lined up ready to go there this year? The answer’s no, not even close,” Freitag said.
Arthur, the market manager, said the market has been working with North Main Street businesses to offer them kiosks or booths at the new town square location that might draw foot traffic from the market to their businesses.
Arthur said the market is still planning how it would set up on the new town square, including the east side portion, which the city and private investors capped off last fall with the completion of a pedestrian bridge.
Under preliminary plans Arthur shared, the market would set up along the back sides of South Main Street storefronts along South Water Street on the river’s east side. Vendors also would set up along the stretch of South River Street along the river’s west side.
Under preliminary plans, both stretches would be shut down to traffic, and people using the market could use the pedestrian bridge to move from one side of the market to the other.