'The future is bright': Saskatoon Farmers' Market opens in new building near airport

The Saskatoon Farmers' Market Co-operative has moved into a new building, leaving behind its long-term home at River Landing. Market manager Erika Quiring said the co-operative and the City of Saskatoon, which owned the building where the market was previously located, had 'incompatible goals.'

Market executive says co-operative and city had 'incompatible goals' for previous location

Erika Quiring, the executive director of the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, stands in the space that will renovated to make room for the market's new permanent home. The market is operating in an adjacent room in the same building until the new space is ready. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Theresa Letkeman only buys the honey in the blue-and-white container, because she recognizes the packaging as being local. 

To get it, she goes to the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, which until this week meant driving from her home in the Lawson Heights neighbourhood to the market's downtown-area home at River Landing. 

But on Saturday, Letkeman was among the patrons visiting their favourite vendors in a new location on Koyl Avenue, near the city airport.

She said the new, temporary location, which has received some criticism for not being as accessible for residents who don't drive, is better for her and her husband.

"Because we're seniors, it was really hard parking and then walking all that way [at River Landing]," said Letkeman.

"This way we can park right outside, walk right in and feel comfortable."

The temporary location at 2604 Koyl Avenue will be in place while its permanent home next door is under construction.

About 35 vendors were at the market on Saturday, Jan. 4, which the co-operative's executive director says is about average for early January. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC News)

The move follows a period of tense negotiations with the City of Saskatoon, the owner of the market's previous location on 19th Street.

The city wanted a public market running in the building six days of the week, with dedicated market days. The co-operative-run market was open three days a week on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays while it was in that building.

In its new location, the market is open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Ultimately, the co-operative and the city reached an impasse and a decision was made to relocate from the city building when the lease ran out at the end of 2019. Seventy-five per cent of vendors in the co-operative voted in favour of the move. 

Market manager Erika Quiring said the relationship between the city and the co-op has "turned the corner."

"We're not struggling to achieve incompatible goals anymore," she said.

About 35 vendors were at Saturday's market, which Quiring said is about five less than usual for early January. 

Another 10 are away on holidays and two decided not to move to the new location, including at least one restaurant based in the former market building. 

The market is in a temporary space while a permanent home for the market is renovated in another part of the building. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC News)

Quiring said the co-operative has started communicating with the City of Saskatoon about the potential for a bus route that would service the market. 

Quiring said it's possible the move might reduce the number of patrons using the market, but long-term vendors believe their customers will remain loyal.

River Landing parking problems: vendors

"They tell us that there is a little bit of a drop at first and then customers do follow, because what the farmers market offers is what people want," said Quiring.

"That's an irreplaceable niche." 

In late 2019, the city issued a request for proposals for a new operator to take over the River Landing site. A previous RFP had been cancelled because the building needed roof repairs.  

Submissions for the latest RFP closed on Dec. 31. 

Quiring said in 2019 she felt the city's RFP process had been biased, a claim the city strongly denied. 

Tom Blacklock believes the new location will bring in new customers who were deterred by parking issues at River Landing. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

While hard feelings remain between some of the vendors and the city administration, those that spoke to CBC emphatically welcomed the move to the new location.

Tom Blacklock, who sells beef cuts through Benlock Farms, has been involved with the market for 16 years. 

He thinks the move will help alleviate parking issues, which he believes had a significant impact on the number of people using the market. 

"We need to get back to where we used to draw four and 5,000, and have it in a big way," he said.

"I'm hoping that we're going to see lots of new members that are kind of more weekend-oriented." 

The new location has about 250 parking spots in an adjacent lot.

The co-op decided on its new location — a former call centre — after looking at dozens of potential sites across the city.

Saturday's event was held in a smaller, temporary space in the new building. A $500,000 demolition and renovation is underway in the larger part of the building to create a permanent space for the market.

The co-operative is working toward a tentative launch date of Feb. 29 of this year.

Farmers' markets 'not convenience stores'

Blacklock said separating from the city location allows the farmers' market to continue in its original format. 

"I think it will give us the opportunity to be what we are supposed to be — a real farmers market," said Blacklock. 

"What people like city council don't understand is, farmers markets — they're not convenience stores," he said.

"People don't need us [to be available] seven days a week. They just need us once … a week. Why people continually try to turn us into a public market makes absolutely no sense."

Lee-Ann Madraga of One Crazy Stitch is optimistic about the future of the market in its new location. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

As she sat crocheting a baby bonnet in the new building, Lee-Ann Madraga from One Crazy Stitch said she thinks the new building is going to be a "great success."

"There's such a great vibe here already today. I think that's just going to expand as we move to our permanent [location] across the hallway," said Madraga.

"It's 2020. We need to move on and just go on with our daily business and, like my sweatshirt says today, the future is bright."