CLEARWATER — After a debut that rubbed some property owners the wrong way, the Clearwater Gateway Farmers Market has been put into the deep freeze — and it may be permanent.
A state grant has run out and city economic development officials won't commit money for the next year until they see whether market managers can mend fences with Nature's Food Patch and other businesses in Cleveland Plaza at Cleveland Street and Missouri Avenue.
In its first season, the Saturday market drew nearly 16,000 customers from the beginning of January to the end of May. But it also angered merchants who said market visitors took their parking spaces and frustrated regular customers.
"Our customers started complaining. They said, 'We're not shopping here anymore on Saturdays, it takes too long to find a spot,'" said Laurie Powers-Shamone, store director at Nature's Food Patch Market and Cafe.
Saturday is the store's busiest day, Powers-Shamone said, and the 99 spaces she leases for customers were frequently filled with farmers market attendees. In July, she and Cleveland Plaza owner Mark Wilkins appealed to the Downtown Development Board to deny a $15,000 funding request from the market, which it did.
Wilkins didn't return a call requesting comment.
"They did a great job of starting this up, but got off on a bad foot with Cleveland Plaza," said David Allbritton, the board's chairman. "If they do get it worked out, they could always bring (the funding request) back."
Sandra Lyth, CEO of the Intercultural Advocacy Institute and Hispanic Outreach Center, which operated the market, said they tried hard to steer customers away from the plaza's parking lot.
She "personally monitored" the plaza's parking lot and said she never saw it completely full during market hours.
"But you can't ask the general public to stop parking wherever they want," Lyth said. She said many market patrons also shopped at Nature's Food Patch on Saturdays.
Lyth has looked at four other sites within the East Gateway District, bounded by Drew and Court streets and Highland and Missouri avenues, but none offered the level ground and access to utilities of the Cleveland Street location.
Powers-Shamone suggested that the market could move a block east along Cleveland or to Crest Lake Park. Neither option works. Locations east along Cleveland Street are too hilly and don't have adequate power and water sources, Lyth said, and Crest Lake Park lies just outside the Community Redevelopment Area boundaries, which would disqualify the market from city financial support.
So what happens if no other site is suitable and Cleveland Street business owners stand firm?
"I'm not closing the door, but I don't know where change is going to come from," Lyth said.
Without city money, the market can't open, Lyth said. Revenue from the market itself isn't enough to sustain it.
Part of the reason for the market was to provide fresh food for the struggling East Gateway neighborhood and to serve its large Latino population.
"Our goal was essentially to feed people," she said.
Powers-Shamone said she thinks a farmer's market in the area is a good idea. She offered to make a donation to help keep it open.
But she disputes that the market fills a need in a "food desert," as her organic grocery store and Save-A-Lot, a discount grocery store, are located in the same block as the farmers market.
"Why would you put a farmers market in front of two grocery stores anyway?" asked Powers-Shamone.
Originally scheduled to reopen in October, the market could still open by January if the two sides find a workable solution, said Geri Lopez, the city's director of Economic Development and Housing.
The city supports the market, but recognizes the "push back" from the plaza owner and tenants, Lopez said.
"At this point, there is no apparent resolution," Lopez said.
City Manager Bill Horne is not convinced that the market interferes with parking from Nature's Food Patch and other businesses in the plaza. He said he has pitched an idea to have off-duty police officers "unequivocally control" access to the lot to make sure market patrons aren't clogging up spaces. The city or the market would pay for the parking enforcement, he said.
That idea went nowhere, Horne said. He's not sure a solution can be found or whether it's worth the battle.
"Do we want to continue to try to make something work that is opposed at every turn?" he said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.