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Clearwater's farmers market contract goes to bid, shakes current operator

CLEARWATER — When the city put the contract for its downtown farmers market out to bid for the first time in June, it inadvertently ruled out the current operator.

Natalie Nagengast, who launched the Pierce Street Market on the waterfront in 2015, has run the business for two seven-month seasons, short of the 24 calendar months of experience outlined by the city.

On July 27, the day the bid responses were due, Nagengast announced to her 46,000 Instagram and Facebook followers she was closing the popular market, stating "this summer, the city of Clearwater decided to put our waterfront market and our permits out for a public bid … and sadly our market did not qualify."

The backlash was swift, with supporters like Tammie Lockwood commenting, "City of Clearwater you make some really dumb decisions."

Now the city is extending the deadline until Aug. 11 and changing the experience requirement from "two years" to "two seasons," specifically to accommodate Nagengast.

Communications director Joelle Castelli said the wording of the "two years" experience requirement was an oversight and the intent was for Nagengast to be eligible and apply. Castelli said Nagengast did not apply before the original due date and did not contact the city asking for clarification.

Tampa Bay Markets, which runs six farmers markets in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and Orlando-based RTP Productions Corp., were the only two businesses to apply.

Nagengast, 29, who declined an interview request and responded only to select questions via text message, said Tuesday that she planned to submit a bid by the new due date.

In announcing the closing of Pierce Street Market on social media, Nagengast stated her business would be renamed Markets for Makers, which will host a variety of popup markets across Tampa Bay.

Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor said the city decided to put the market contract out to bid because Nagengast began indicating in April that she was looking to move to another city. Because the market is using public property for a private business, Taylor also said the city had to ensure it was a "competitive and fair process."

Since 2016, the city has given Pierce Street Market $30,000 in cash grants, according to downtown manager Anne Fogarty France.

On April 13, Nagengast emailed Taylor stating she was considering relocating her business because of disappointment in the city's lack of support for the Church of Scientology's offer to overhaul downtown infrastructure, recruit high-end retail to empty storefronts and build an entertainment complex with actor Tom Cruise.

Scientology leader David Miscavige offered to bankroll the redevelopment on the condition that the city move aside and allow the church to buy a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street. After the city bought the lot April 20, Miscavige withdrew his offer to redevelop downtown.

On April 17, Nagengast told the city she would not be requesting any more city funds for the 2018 fiscal year. She also stated in an email to the Downtown Development Board that she pulled her proposal for an indoor market, explaining, "hopefully, there will be many more businesses downtown coming soon and we can revisit the project."

That came five days after Nagengast sent an email to her vendors encouraging them to support Scientology's proposal and encourage the council not to buy the vacant lot coveted by the church.

In an email to her vendors on July 27, Nagengast explained that she did not submit a bid for the market contract because the experience requirement disqualified her, but also because liability insurance and disclosure requirements were too constricting. Those requirements have not changed with the extended deadline.

"It wasn't in our best interest or your best interest to respond," she wrote. "To respond and even get the opportunity to get into back-and-forth negotiations was literally handing over the keys of everything I own in my company."

According to data Nagengast provided to the city, Pierce Street Market had more than 50,000 visitors in the 2017 season and $50,000 in food truck sales. Since its launch in October 2015, Nagengast said the market has hosted 550 small businesses.

Tampa Bay Markets owner Greg Barnhill said he bid for the Clearwater contract to expand and help more local businesses reach the public. He said the city extending its deadline to accommodate one business does not change his proposal.

"It is their prerogative to do that," Barnhill said. "So may the best vendor win."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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