Struggling West Side Market Looks To The Future, Possibly As Nonprofit

the interior of the West Side Market in Cleveland
On a January 2019 day when the temperature plunged below zero, most of the vendors at the West Side Market decided not to open shop. [Adrian Ma / ideastream]
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As the City of Cleveland considers a study which could end up turning over the iconic 107-year-old West Side Market to nonprofit management, it’s worth looking back at the civic centerpiece, its history and the path many of its vendors have taken to be where they are today.

Though the city last month introduced new goals for the market -- meant to be implemented this year -- there are vendors who insist the market has issues which are forcing them to consider leaving.

Shoppers are on the list of people who believe the city is not necessarily the best operator for a vibrant and successful West Side Market.

Also in that camp are the market’s neighbors, some City Council members and a growing number of the market's own vendors.

"Yeah, I would like to detach from the city,” said 21-year market veteran Nina Coleman of Meister Foods. "I would definitely like to go nonprofit, yeah. I don't think that the city is giving us enough attention and there are some things that we really want to try to fight for to have that the city won't, you know, pay attention to."

But she couches that by saying how optimistic she is and how much she loves being here.

And that idea of taking it from municipal control has many detractors – those who believe there are ways the West Side Market will continue to thrive, preferably by making enhancements but without implementing wholesale change.

A Change, But What Kind Of Change?

But how did it get here, to smaller crowds, some empty stalls and a restless feel?

Some blame falls on the city's failure to maintain facilities. Even though the past six years have seen more than $5.4 million in spending on capital repairs, most of it has been on a critical-first basis, including electrical work, boiler installation and roof repairs. There's more to come.

Many people have long-blamed a perceived parking problem – later alleviated when the city of Cleveland instituted a policy that requires people pay to leave their cars at the market’s parking lot, longer than 90 minutes.

Vendors also complained about the hefty rent increase over the past year – which caught many stand operators by surprise.

"We didn't have a rent increase for ten years,” said Don Whitaker, head of the market’s tenants’ association and owner of Whitaker’s Meats. “Then all of a sudden we get a 30 percent one over 18 months. They tried to stagger it, but… things like that can kind of shock people – especially the newer tenant who doesn't know, hey, we haven't had a rent increase in ten years. To them, it's a 30 percent increase."

And also in that camp that its time to remove city control, in favor of a non-profit that focuses solely on the market.

"I'm optimistic, but to me, when you run your own business – I don't run a city or anything – it's going at a snail's pace in my mind… I'm a little more impatient."

Whitaker's Meats is a market stalwart and Whitaker himself remembers the West Side Market near its peak - when operators would have snickered at the idea of 1.8 million people crossing the market's threshold in 2020.

In its heyday, two-and-a-half-times that number annually entered its doors.

Even now, supporters, including Ohio City Inc. chairman Tom McNair, cherish what was named 'One of the ten great places in America' by the nonprofit American Planning Association in 2008.

“I think the West Side Market, still, with any of the issues that may still be going on today, is absolutely one of the crown jewels of the city of Cleveland. It is truly a temple and cathedral to food. Walking inside [the market] has an absolutely magical impact on people who haven't seen it before. You look up at the Guastavino tile ceiling that sits in there... It is an extraordinary place.”

McNair's organization has been mentioned as a potential candidate for overseeing market operations, but he says that's not in the future and not in Ohio City Inc.’s core strengths.

Meanwhile, Mayor Frank Jackson, adamant the city would not sell the site, has gradually changed his position to consider bringing in nonprofit management.

ideastream asked the city for additional comment, but have yet to receive a response.

Promises From The City, Vendor Departures

Cleveland has listed a plethora of goals for the market in 2020 – from diversifying products sold, to much-needed capital improvements to once-rejected ideas such as merchandizing and placing a business incubator on site.

Very high on that list of improvements is trying to better the relationships with market tenants through the tenants board.

Many vendors, though, are done waiting. In roughly the last month of 2019, two more long-time vendors at the West Side Market left.

Turczyk's Meats had been a presence at the market since 1954. On leaving, owner Michael Turczyk posted a multi-layered Facebook screed calling working conditions "deplorable.” Maha's Falafil was a newcomer by some standards, having been in the market just 33 years, also departed.

Coleman said concern is visible on the faces of her clients.

"I can't tell you how many customers over the past year are just 'Are you guys okay?'… 'I'm so glad you're here,’ 'Oh my goodness, what's happening?’ …family members that see it on the news,” she said. “Everyone's scared for the future of the market."

Outside the cosmetic and structural improvements by the city, McNair said change also has to come from vendors themselves – some of whom are set in their ways, even in the face of changing customer habits.

"Ohio City is a growing neighborhood, which we think is a tremendous thing for the WSM, right? Used to tell vendors all the time; one of best things that we can do as an organization is we work with the community is finding a way to continue to grow thoughtfully. Because the reality is that people tend to shop -- by where they live."

Coleman concurs, but sees societal change as a problem vendors may just have to accept.

"Since the neighborhoods' gentrified quite a bit over the years, a lot of the blue collar folks who were coming down to the market to shop and support their families and cook – the new generation's not doing that,” she said. “They're doing at home deliveries and they want to go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. And I kind of want to bring some of that into here with delivery services and such, change the market up a little bit without losing the history. But the younger people, they're not cooking like they used to.”

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