Is handing over struggling public markets a good deal for city?

The city is trying to make some changes to improve the ByWard Market. But why is it giving up responsibility for managing its own assets?

Council on verge of handing over management of market operations to non-profit corporation

Councillors are planning to hand over management of ByWard and Parkdale market vendors to a non-profit corporation, overseen by a volunteer board of directors. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

That Ottawa's public markets at ByWard and, to a lesser extent, Parkdale are in trouble comes as news to no one.

For years, we've been discussing how the proliferation of farmers' markets across this city, combined with the ever-expanding selection of high-brow foodie goods for sale at local grocery stores, have led to the disappearance of outdoor stalls, especially at the ByWard Market.

More officially, New York-based consultants Project for Public Spaces warned the city in 2013 that ByWard was in crisis, that the historic district's food heritage was being overtaken by restaurants and bars, and that without some action, the market would become an entertainment district.

Four years later, the city is taking some first steps to improve the situation.

New seating, lighting, greenery and a replica "heritage clock" are coming soon to George Street to make the area more conducive to hanging out.

An art installation to be installed next month on York Street that will take up surface parking spots will give the city an idea of how the market might cope if the area were turned into public space.

And a pilot project for a valet parking in ByWard is in the works.

So kudos for the city for trying something to improve the situation.

Council may hand over responsibility for city-owned assets

But in its efforts to improve ByWard, it's not clear exactly why council is on the verge of handing over its management of the outdoor produce stalls, as well as the market building and the city-owned parking garage at Clarence Street, to a non-profit municipal corporation.

Yesterday city council's finance and economic development committee approved the new management structure, which now needs only council approval to become a reality.

To be fair to the city, a change in governance models for ByWard was a recommendation from Projects for Public Spaces.

And the current trend sees municipal employees getting out of the market-management game in favour of some sort of arm's-length corporation, as has been the case in Montreal, Winnipeg and Hamilton. (However, it is worth noting that the city of Toronto still runs the historic St. Lawrence Market, which is undergoing a $90-million redevelopment.)

Still, it's hard to see why the finance and economic development committee is willing to hand over responsibility for city-owned assets to a non-profit corporation whose executive director will be chosen by a volunteer board of directors, and who will report to council but once a year.

For the last 20 years, the city's ByWard Market building was run as a public-private partnership. But the city hasn't been too happy with the way that worked out, considering council decided not to renew the deal.

How 'local' will markets be?

So what makes city staff and councillors think a non-profit corporation will do any better?

To start, the new board appears to be operating under conflicting directions. The mission statement for the board said it should promote local food sustainability, and provide "local produce and goods" for residents and tourists alike.

But it's not clear how central providing local farmers' produce will be to a revamped market operation. City staff told councillors' on Tuesday that will be up to the new corporation what will be for sale based on customer demand. So how many local farmers will end up at the ByWard farmers' market?

A "business case" presented by city staff also doesn't provide any clear evidence of why a new governance model will result in a surplus for ByWard and Parkdale markets by 2020, other than to offer some discussion points about private entities being more nimble and entrepreneurial than the city's bylaw and regulatory department, which now oversees the market operations.

There have been calls for a Christmas market in the ByWard Market. Will that be more likely through a not-for-profit?

No study of revamping internal city management

It's true current rules make it harder for smaller producers to set up a stand at ByWard for, say, one day a week. And there were some laments at council that it's difficult to have a Christmas or antique or night market at ByWard.

So why don't councillors change the rules?

If we want a Christmas market in ByWard, surely councillors can make that happen. They changed the bylaws to allow interesting food trucks onto our streets, so why can't they change market regulations to make managing them more flexible?

Can the city not find someone with experience in managing a fabulous market and hire that person?

The staff business case did not explore the idea of revamping the city's own management of the markets.

Instead, councillors seem prepared to leave everything up to third parties to decide what to do under a challenging set of circumstances, and under what appear to be conflicting directions.


Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.