WatchSonoma Watch

Sonoma County to replace farmers market at vets hall

Sara Laughlin of Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar stretches pizza dough at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market, Saturday Feb. 4, 2012 in the parking lot of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall. At right is sous chef Liz Gallaher. (PD File, 2012)


Sonoma County has ended its lease with the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market and plans to have a new group run the popular market at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.

After months of negotiations, financial reports and public showdowns over a proposed rent increase at the building, county parks officials are turning the operation over to the Redwood Empire Farmers’ Markets.

“This is very valuable public space and there is a lot of demand for it,” Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said Friday. “We’ve given a lot of concessions, and as a landlord it was clear to me that (the existing market) was not interested in doing business with the county.”

“The new group has the space reserved and has put down the deposit,” she said.

The changeover is planned for July.

Paula Downing, director of the existing market, has called for a meeting at 1:30 p.m. today of vendors and the public to discuss the future of the current market.

In a posting on the farmers market website, she said the county “unilaterally and arbitrarily” ended lease negotiations and reached agreement with another organization without her knowledge.

Downing hopes to keep interest alive in maintaining the current market leadership and possibly changing the county’s mind about the space.

“I’ve done enough politics to know that it’s never over and not to give up hope,” she said.

Downing also said she is looking at possible new spaces for the market in Santa Rosa.

“This is very emotional. I feel really sad. I feel like I have responsibility to these” vendors and farmers.

At issue was a proposed rent increase beginning in July that would nearly double the current $23,875 paid annually by the market for the use of the Veterans Building parking lot on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Downing balked at the increase, saying the $57,660 annual rent would end up hurting local farmers and the market.

For the past 10 years, the Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market paid a significantly discounted rate up to 75 percent — to use the lot at Brookwood and Maple avenues. That totals more $156,000 in rent breaks, according to records.

However, financial records submitted by Downing to show the market’s income and expenses and ultimately its need for continued subsidies by the county failed to convince officials.

The Redwood Empire Farmers Markets was willing to pay the full amount and will take over July 4, after the current market’s lease expires June 30, Hart said.

The new market organization is a collection of current vendors, farmers and community members, said spokesman Rob Cary, former Sebastopol Community Center Director.

“The new market will continue at the Veterans Building without interruption under new management. The stall rates will remain the same as they currently are. We want to have a smooth transition for everyone,” Cary said.

Downing will be invited to apply for the new market manager position.

An undercurrent to much of the upheaval is a public feud inside the market that’s been simmering since 2010. A number of vendors called for the firing of Downing, ultimately removing her and installing a new board of directors.

Weeks later, however, Downing and the original board were reinstated. After the tussle, several vendors alleged retaliatory acts by Downing, including the owners of Gleason Ranch who filed a pending lawsuit against the market in 2011. Former and current members of the market, including the owners of Gleason Ranch, have been supportive of the creation of the Redwood Empire Farmers’ Market.

“This is a fresh opportunity,” Hart said. “From my perspective it would be best if everyone could come together and stop all the acrimony. The number one interest of the county is a market that provides healthy local food in a vibrant and positive way.”

18 Responses to “Sonoma County to replace farmers market at vets hall”

  1. Lucinda says:

    Is Michelle Anna Jordan paid by the Santa Rosa Farmers Market? I heard at one of their meetings that she was, but I would have thought the Press Democrat wouldn’t allow that. Can anyone confirm this?

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  2. Vowel Movement says:

    Mr. B.

    Doubts rarely equate to reality. Doubts are just doubts and likely a result of imminent change which is not always a bad thing. I say wait and see.

    Not sure what the rest of your post means.


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  3. Jim Bennett says:

    V. Movement:
    I think the group of vendors I visited with outside BOS had more doubts than you.

    The relatively small amount of money in the scheme of things right now, compared to the damage I heard in front of BOS,
    doesn’t seem worth the carnage.

    Leaving a little money on the table,
    could be considered a subsidy.

    We’ll waste that on a ‘study’.

    It’s a brutal time for small ag. right now.

    Many of them know why, many don’t.

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  4. Vowel Movement says:

    Mr. Bennett.

    I fail to see the small business damage to which you refer. The only directly affected party is Ms. Downing, and that was by her own hand. The vendors will undoubtedly find space in the new market or other markets. Their products will continue to sell. We will continue to have a Farmer’s Market at the Vet’s Hall. Win-win.

    You fault the County for failing to “make it work”. I would argue that they did make it work. They are recovering fair market value for their valuable real estate while continuing to provide a venue for our local Farmer’s market. Again, the only party seriously inconvenienced is Ms. Downing, and that was entirely preventable.

    I thought all you Anti-ICLEI Flat-Earthers were against governmental intrusion and yet you argue that the County should continue to subsidize Ms. Downing’s operation. You need to get your rhetoric straight, Sir.

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  5. Jim Bennett says:

    We’ll see how accomadating the City/County is in extending a permit for the new location, if they can find one.

    Regardless of ‘the real story’, in effect, we have more small business damage inflicted by our local ICLEI adherent local government.

    Given the current economic landscape, the amount of people damaged, seems the County could find a way to make it work.

    Given the amount of money our local government wastes, even if a subsidy, a graduating rent increase schedule, something should have been done.

    The vendors that showed up at BOS meeting yesterday en masse said there were a lot of unreturned calls, they were beside themselves.

    Instead of a cohesive community, we have change agents congratulating each other while they continue to orchestrate our decline.

    I don’t know what the new market will be like.
    But trust me, having an alternative to main stream corporate grocery for fresh affordable food this year would have been much needed.

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  6. Lucinda says:

    You asked for the dish, get ready! In my humble but honest opinion, there are two camps. One has seen the nice little old lady market manager side. The other has seen they abusive, manipulative side. The camp that’s only seen the nice side, just can’t believe the nasty stories….even when they come from board members.

    You don’t get into the market unless Paula decides to give you an application (the board can’t control her, never has, never will). If she decides you’ll be quiet, or back her….you get an application, thus the right to vote. That leaves a voting membership & board virtually all of her choosing and virtually always on her side.

    Once you start asking questions about finances, rules & such – you’re out!

    As for the money issues ($48,000 salary aside)…..I won’t touch that one! I’ll leave it to the P.D.

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  7. Missy says:

    Someone please tell us the dish on Paula Downing! I’m all ears. Please post it here. I love Heather but she would never allow this kind of gossip on her page.

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  8. Money Grubber says:


    You don’t understand, Steve.

    Churches and other privately owned facilities are allowed to use their property as they wish so long as the use falls within zoning regulations.

    The government is NOT allowed to compete with private industry regardless of the excuses the liar or misinformed bureaucrats might utter.

    To own a building that is used for entertainment purposes and which is rented out to various private groups for private functions competes with privately owned buildings and as such is illegal. It only takes some energetic and funded litigation against the government to clear that illegality up.

    The poor government management that you refer to is a secondary issue, actually.

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  9. Steveguy says:

    @Mr Grubber. I don’t mind so much the Government building a facility, it’s the ‘management’ that gets in the way.

    While I am not real familiar with the practices of the Vet’s Hall, I do know that churches and others that own similar meeting places seem to do just fine.

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  10. Money Grubber says:

    The government has zero business owning any “vets hall” or “fair ground” or any other building that is a form of entertainment.

    Unless, of course, you actually think that the people of Sonoma County cannot make their own way through life without the government babysitting service.

    Wait. Government babysitting “service.” Now I understand what the public employees are always referring to when they speak of government “service.” BABYSITTING services.

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  11. Vowel Movement says:

    Paula Downing is as short sighted as she is a overly controlling. Accepting the county’s terms would have meant an increase in stall rental from the current rate of $13 to $26 per Saturday.

    Granted, every dollar counts to the small farmer and Artisan food maker, but I don’t see thirteen bucks as being a deal breaker. Particularly given the market’s popularity. Thousands show every week, rain or shine.

    By refusing to negotiate in good faith with the county, she went and got herself replaced by another market that is more than willing to pay the going rate. I’m guessing their stall spaces will sell out, if they haven’t done so already.

    I do hope the new market takes note of Paula’s marked lack of rudimentary business decision making skills and withdraws their offer to allow her to manage the new market.

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  12. Steveguy says:

    I wish that I owned an unused parking lot. I could lease it to them for cheap, and still make some money. There must be a landowner somewhere that would jump at the chance to make a few off of an unused space.( for the most part, as there is the huge lot on the other side)

    Is the Government the problem here ? Again ? oh my

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  13. Steve Klausner says:

    It is to expensive trying to do business with the county at the Fair Grounds. It is just a parking lot that would be otherwise empty. Enough with these $6 a dozen eggs.

    The Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market should find a new location and not wait to be booted out. We need healthy food at an affordable price.

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  14. Western Cluebird says:

    The farmers can pretend to be “occupying” the space so they don’t have to pay a dime- it works in Sebastopol.
    And Ms.Downing, don’t let the tomatos hit you on the way out.

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  15. sami lee says:

    this all about revenge from some disgruntled former vendors

    nothing good will come of this and the county really screwed up

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  16. GAJ says:

    How can the stall rates stay the same if the rent doubles?

    The only answer would seem to be that the new managers are less greedy!

    Sounds like the new arrangement is a win for everyone but the control freak Paula Downing!

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  17. Average Joe says:

    She may have over played her hand.

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  18. John Lennon says:

    Get her out of there. She was robbing the county. The new group is a win-win for all parties.

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