City council ponders giving $30K to Hamilton Farmers' Market as attendance plummets

In an appeal for a budget increase, Gordon Albini, treasurer of the Hamilton Farmers' Market board, described how the pandemic has bullied vendors in the market.

There were triple the number of weekly visits to the farmers' market in 2019 compared to 2020

The Hamilton Farmers' Market may have to dip into its reserves if more vendors continue to stop visiting the market during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

City council will decide if the Hamilton Farmers' Market should get $30,000 in one-time funding to help it survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coun. Jason Farr (Ward 2) proposed the unanimously approved motion to bolster market promotion during a general issues committee meeting on Thursday.

It came after an appeal from Gordon Albini, treasurer of the Hamilton Farmers' Market board, to increase the market budget in 2021.

Armed with data, he presented how the pandemic has bullied vendors in the market. The number of people visiting Hamilton's Farmers' Market plummeted since March, Albini said.

During the last week of 2019, there were between 15,000 and 20,000 visits to the market. There were fewer than 5,000 visits during the same time in 2020.

Albini said the market has lost at least $46,600 because of the reduced foot traffic. That includes:

  • $23,100 from unoccupied space, with some one in five stalls being vacant.
  • $14,500 from five abandoned contracts.
  • $9,000 from the delayed launch of two new businesses.

He said the total forecasted stall revenue for 2021 is $438,800, but cautioned it was a "very aggressive" forecast because they don't know if stall vacancies or the pandemic will worsen.

Still, revenue is $41,200, or 8.6 per cent, lower than 2020, he said. And in 2019, actual stall revenue was $509,000.

The levy budget would be $115,000 for 2021.

Albini said if more vendors vacate, the board will need to dip into its reserve funds to keep the market afloat. He noted some vendors aren't signing the 2021 contract to stay.

City council is holding an emergency meeting Monday to deal with the vendor issues.

"If we, as a community, truly believe the market is one of Hamilton's oldest and most cherished traditions, then our investment in it must be viewed as an investment in the city's cultural and social infrastructure," Albini said. "That is to say, we can't exclusively view it as a business entity."

Market board director and chair resigned in protest

His proposal followed the resignation of Eric Miller, the former director and chair of the market board.

In a letter to city councillors, Miller said his resignation was "in protest of an avoidable crisis forced" upon the struggling market. He said the city should have provided a substitute to the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) funding or accommodated three months of rent reductions.

Miller said accommodating the rent reductions would be free to taxpayers since it would have used funds accumulated from a private sponsorship. He also said the substitute to CECRA could be one-time funding — similar to the concept councillors will vote on at their overview of this year's budget.

In March, when the pandemic arrived in Hamilton, vendors said they felt forced to decide what price they were willing to pay to stay open as the virus spread.

That feeling never faded. Pauline Zavaglia, who runs the Close to Natural stall at the market, wrote to city councillors on Jan. 13 about the dire circumstances.

"I may not be able to open again. I have used all my savings to get my small business going. I am broke," she wrote.

"Stop the rent long enough for us to get caught up. So your market can live on. And we can keep or business going. Have you not lost enough stall holders? You will lose all of us if we can't pay your rent."

The city has invested in the market before and all of council cares about it, said Mayor Fred Eisenberger. In years past, Hamilton spent some $9 million to retrofit the market, which has been around since 1837 — but the retrofitting failed, forcing the city to plan a relaunch to attract more customers.

Coun. Esther Pauls (Ward 7) pushed hard during a Wednesday city council meeting and the general issues committee meeting, saying more needed to be done.

"The Hamilton Farmers' Market is an institution," she said Thursday. "This is an icon we've had for 184 years, this is a place people go and shop ... we have to decide whether we value it or not."


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