Visitors to the Hamilton Downtown Farmers Market will continue to park for free until the end of the year, a move some say is taking the struggling market off life support.

In an effort to revive traffic to the 177-year-old market, city hall approved a validated parking system in January. With the system, shoppers at the farmers market park in the nearby parking garage and vendors validate the ticket.

'The customers are slowly increasing. So we’re satisfied.' - Shane Coleman, stallholders assoc. president

The pilot project started in March and was due to end in June. But it’s working so well that it’ll continue to the end of 2014, with the money coming from a budget funded by vendor fees, said Coun. Jason Farr of Ward 2, chair of the city’s farmers market subcommittee. And city staff are investigating ways to keep it going beyond that.

It’s still too early to measure exactly what the difference has been, he said. But the market is doing better.

“Undoubtedly, the Downtown Farmers Market has been taken off life support and is up and moving with every indication that consistent vitality is just around the corner,” he said.

Farmers market vendors came to city hall in late 2013 with a plea for validated parking and a new governance model. The number of vendors was dwindling, stallholders association president Shane Coleman said at the time, and the loss of free parking during a market renovation in 2011 was partly to blame.

“We are experiencing the worst business I’ve seen in my 38 years as a vendor," Ron Jepson of Jepson's Fresh Meats told councillors in December.

It’ll cost about $40,000 to continue the parking program for the rest of the year, but the money will come from a budget that's fed by vendors fees, Farr said.

Promising numbers

Vendors are validating about 2,000 tickets a month, Coleman said. In previous years, before the city cancelled free parking, vendors were seeing about 6,000 cars a month.

Vendors are validating 30 to 50 cars per day during the week and 250 to 400 cars on Saturdays.

“It’s slowly increasing,” Coleman said. “The customers are slowly increasing. So we’re satisfied.”

The city is finalizing a new governance model that would see a board with a mix of councillors, local farmers, re-sellers and citizen appointees, Farr said. Staff is planning a public consultation period, and held a community focus group in February.  

The market has three vendors coming this summer: a Mennonite baker, gourmet vegetables and a gourmet soup and sandwich maker. As of Aug. 1, shoppers will be able to buy VQA wines in the market.