The city will look into assembling a non-profit board of directors to oversee the troubled Hamilton Farmers Market.

At a meeting Thursday, the market subcommittee voted to look into a board that includes councillors, vendors and the general public to try to change the fortunes of the market that some vendors say is in a "crisis."

As well, the committee decided that money from a marketing fund would be used to provide free parking for market customers to try to boost customers.

Change needs to happen at the farmers market, said Shane Coleman, president of the stallholders association. And this is exactly what they were looking for.

“We’re finally moving in the right direction,” Coleman said.

“We all just have to work together to fix the market and reinvigorate it.”

Subsidy to the Hamilton Farmers Market

2011: $319,500

2012: $250,000

2013: $189,000

2014 (projected): $161,000

The vote came after an extensive report from John Hertel, the city’s director of enterprise management and revenue generation.

Hertel held meetings with vendors and customers and visited several Ontario farmers markets to assemble the report, which proposed three options:

  • A private operator. This doesn’t necessarily mean a corporation driven only by profits, Hertel said. It could be a smaller, local operator.
  • The “hybrid” model, which includes three councillors, three stallholders and three members of the public. This is the one councillors voted for.
  • A revised version of the status quo, which is the city running the market. The subcommittee crossed this off the list early in the meeting.

Staff will come back to councillors in January with a transition plan, said Coun. Chad Collins of Ward 5. Collins, Coun. Jason Farr and Coun. Robert Pasuta form the three-member committee.

“We all recognize that the current model isn’t working,” Collins said.

The city subsidizes the market, although that subsidy decreases each year. It peaked in 2011 at $319,500. This year, the city provided $189,000, and projects a $161,000 subsidy for 2014.

That subsidy could be eliminated with a few simple solutions, including the board of directors, Coleman said last week. The market also needs better signs and validated parking for customers.

City staff have consulted a sign design company, which expects to have three possible designs ready for January, said Donna Lee Macdonald, who manages the farmers market. The market used to have a sign that stretched across York Boulevard, but contractors scrapped it during $9-million renovations in 2010.

The subcommittee also voted to use $15,000 set aside for marketing to provide six months of validated parking. Staff will report back in January on how the temporary system might work. Then city council must approve it on Jan. 22.

Other highlights from Hertel’s presentation:

  • Surveys found customers wanted an emphasis on local food. They also wanted ready-to-eat foods prepared fresh in the market, and they wanted the aromas to fill the air.
  • Downtown's changing demographics mean fertile ground for the market, Hertel said. Two thousand more residents are expected over the next three years, 65 per cent of which are young professionals. McMaster is also building a downtown health campus, which will bring thousands more potential customers.
  • The local food movement is here to stay, Hertel said. Cooking shows are increasingly popular. Organic food is on the rise.
  • Customers judge vendors for offering food from the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto. But food from the terminal isn’t bad, Hertel said. About 400 Ontario farmers have booths at the terminal, so much of it is still fresh Ontario produce.

Hertel also recommended better cellular and WiFi and a new floor plan that makes better use of the space.

The general issues committee will vote on the subcommittee's recommendation in January. Then it will be approved by city council.