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.”