DUNEDIN — Emails, letters and phone calls have poured in to City Hall about a city committee's recommendation that Dunedin replace its local Green Market manager with a company out of Hillsborough County.
City officials say Dunedin resident Richard Kendler has done a good job running the market he founded nine years ago. But committee members say a deal with Tampa Bay Markets of Hillsborough makes more financial sense, among other positives.
The five-member evaluation committee chose Tampa Bay Markets over Kendler after the city asked for proposals to manage the market. The City Commission will debate Thursday whether to approve the committee's choice.
Kendler and dozens of vendors, customers and city residents have launched an email and Facebook campaign in hopes of tilting the scales in his favor.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay Markets has complained that Kendler is spreading misinformation about them. And emails show city officials are upset that Kendler is using a Facebook page that gives the impression it is government-related to rally against the city.
"For nine years," Kendler said, "I've been getting praises — the market's doing great, it's growing, the city's making more money each year — and I didn't get the bid. And I think it's mostly because of money."
But Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin's economic development director and a member of the committee, said other factors are in play: "It was about ability to promote the (Green) Market. We want to revive and refresh the market."
The recommendation comes as Dunedin moves to change the market's structure and bring it in line with other city contracts, including those for Sail Honeymoon and the Arts and Crafts Festival. According to city policy, the city is required to seek competitive proposals every five years to ensure transparency and smart spending of taxpayer money.
Under contracts awarded in 2004 and 2009, Kendler became a contractual employee. The market operates on Fridays in November though April and each Saturday in November through July. Kendler was paid $300 per market event plus start-up and season bonus costs — or $19,600 a year. In return, the city received nearly $42,000 in vendor fees. After paying insurance and other costs, the city last year made a $22,382 profit.
However, under the new rules, the market manager will rent space from the city and handle all operations, including accounting and liability insurance.
Tampa Bay Markets manages four year-round, open-air markets in Hillsborough County — Hyde Park, Wesley Chapel, Seminole Heights and North Tampa — with 70 to 120 vendors each, plus monthly food truck rallies. The company offered the city $18,000 in rent, or $300 per market, the first year and $31,000, or $500 per market, each of the next four years.
Kendler proposed $125 per market, or $7,750 a year.
According to Kendler, renovations and logistics rules at Pioneer Park mean there is space for only 30 to 35 vendors. He said the income projections used by Tampa Bay Markets, whose materials reference space for 40 vendors, are flawed or unrealistic.
Kendler had planned to raise vendor fees in November from $16 or $20, depending on booth size, to $20 or $25. But he anticipates vendors' rents will double under Tampa Bay Markets.
"If I doubled the vendors' rent, I could have a lot of money to go to bid too. But I didn't want to break the vendors' backs," he said. "The market was never meant to make money, but to bring people downtown to shop and enhance the downtown experience."
At least one former vendor contacted the city to criticize Kendler's management style, but some 30 supporters have written in to praise his friendly demeanor and expertise at running a smooth operation alone.
Ironsmith acknowledges that Kendler has "done a good job."
But he said the committee — made up of representatives from the Community Redevelopment Agency, Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association and city parks — was most impressed by Tampa Bay Markets' Facebook page, website and an e-newsletter that will send articles about vendors and Dunedin to 5,000 subscribers. Tampa Bay Markets also has a formula to ensure variety of products and prevent price-gouging by vendors.
Evaluators said Kendler has only a Facebook presence and failed to pitch concrete plans for growth. Their written comments also reveal concern with several parts of his application, including whether he met insurance requirements.
Tampa Bay Markets "really knows how to work with the community," Ironsmith said. "They're not coming in to clean house. That was never the goal. The goal is to grow it and make it a destination for people who want to come from outside the area."
If hired, Tampa Bay Markets co-owner Tiffany Ferrecchia says priority would be given to current vendors. The focus would be on environmentally friendly, handmade, renewable and recyclable items that don't directly compete with downtown merchants. Their standard booth fee of $25 for agricultural vendors and $40 for all others helps cover advertising expenses, she said. One or both owners plus an assistant manager will be on site each market day.
In a letter to merchants dispelling rumors, Ferrecchia's business partner Greg Barnhill noted that only five of the 97 vendors at Dunedin's market last season were "local" city residents, meaning most market participants already travel, as would Tampa Bay Markets vendors.
"I know it's hard when there is transition," Ferrecchia said. "But we really want to keep the market as successful as it already is. We really want to improve advertising and expand it. …We're all about community support."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.