Embracing Change at the Saint Paul Farmers Market


Hot dogs are OK, but dog dogs aren’t?

I love the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market. It’s the best one in the Twin Cities. Many weekends, I’ll ride my bike down the bluff from my West Side apartment to hang out in Lowertown. I usually wander around and spend a few dollars before going up West 7th street to do some errands.

That’s why I read the fascinating article in yesterday’s Pioneer Press about the market with some interest. And as so often happens, I wound beating my head against my desk. The recent discussion illustrates how easily “the parking problem” can be misunderstood. 

The False Premise of Market Failure


Street musicians and street life

No offense to Pioneer Press reporter Fred Melo (who does a difficult job well), but whoever is running the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market seems to be doing everything wrong. The article begins with the premise that the Farmer’s Market is in decline.

Here’s the quote : 

As many as 12,000 customers would shop at the Farmers’ Market on a Saturday or Sunday morning as recently as five or six years ago, Gerten said.

A headcount this past May shows “7,600-8,000, is where we are now,” Gerten said. Most of the drop “has come since they began construction on the (light) rail.”

If anyone remembers what happened this Spring, the winter lasted a long long time. Back in May when this count was taken, it was still really cold and the Farmer’s Market didn’t have any produce! The fact that thousands of people were there anyway is actually impressive.

nicollet mall farmers market

Nicollet Mall farmer’s market

The other obvious reason for a potential decline of the big downtown farmer’s markets (in both cities) is the exponential growth of farmer’s markets in the metro area. Last year, a farmer’s market opened up a few blocks from my house on the West Side. (I pass it on my way to the market in Lowertown.) Two years ago, my mom’s church in Cathedral Hill started a twice-weekly farmer’s market in a parking lot on Summit Avenue. The Unidale farmer’s market in the horrible Unidale strip mall parking lot is madly popular.

Meanwhile, through the week there are markets on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, Church Street on the U of MN campus, and 7th Place in downtown Saint Paul. These days, you can throw a fresh tomato in a random direction and the chances are you’ll hit someone selling kale.

Both the Saint Paul and Minneapolis Farmer’s Markets are competing with all these other farmer’s markets. Ironically, this article and the market director’s incessant “parking barking” (a term I coined, where people just say “parking parking parking” repeatedly like annoying dada dogs) will probably decrease the amount of people willing to go down to the market. 

“Parking is Really Really Hard”


Parking on the train tracks is not the future

Parking is the thorn in the side of every urban planner and idealistic politician, and has been so since the dawn of cars.

For many people, the problem is straightforward. Here’s a quote from one of the vendors:

Standing over two tables of spring rolls, egg rolls and fresh vegetables on a recent weekend, longtime vendor Lillian Hang called the month-old light rail a step up for the city, but not a cure for parking concerns.

“People like it. I really like it,” she said. “(But) parking is a pain. Parking is really, really hard.” 

Not to minimize people’s opinions, but parking is not “really really hard.” Rocket science is really really hard. Diamonds are really really hard. Being a good parent is really really hard. Parking? Basically, all you have to do is turn your wrist a little bit and move your ankle back and forth while craning your neck slightly. Parking is relatively easy.

The problem is that parking is often frustrating. A while back on this site, I described the “Costanza mentality”

The issue in Lowertown, Saint Paul is that lots of people want to park on a very few places of land. The problem that comes from that is that many people spend a lot of highly frustrating time “cruising,” struggling in vain, attempting to find one of these precious patches of asphalt nirvana. That’s the key problem! We need to find a way a way liberate people this teeth-grinding white-knuckled automobile parking hell.


Free Parking is Not the Answer


All hail the giant parking space!

Solving the “parking problem” depends completely on the environment. The solution for many big box-style suburban parking centers is to create huge parking lots. If people are complaining about parking, you build a giant parking lot in front of your entrance. It’s straightforward supply and demand, and this kind of “supply side” approach to parking is why every suburban strip mall, office park, and big box store is surrounded by giant surface parking lots that stretch out like moon craters. 

It’s counterintuitive, but that solution does not work at all for downtowns. As anyone who’s ever wandered around a stadium can attest, giant parking lots are incompatible with pleasant walking. As downtowns become popular places to live again, surface parking lots will fill transform into buildings. This is a great thing for cities! Replacing a downtown surface parking lot with a new building (stadium, apartment, office, or whatever) is like replacing a pre-packaged slice of American cheese with hand-crafted cave-aged blue cheese from Faribault.  


The Market needs places to sit, not more cars driving by

Another reason that the obvious suburban “free parking”  solution is problematic is due to cruising. Price is a great way to sort out differences in demand. Some people really value being close to their destination, while others are far more willing to walk a few blocks through the city. The way to solve this problem is to provide a range of pricing options, ideally ones that taper off along with distance. 

Right now, Downtown Saint Paul is setting parking pricing exactly backwards. Currently on-street meters are free, and the off-street parking lots get more expensive as they get farther away.

(Granted, I would say that charging $1 is effectively the same as “free,”, but whatever…) 

If highly sought after on-street meters are free, then all kinds of people will park at them for as long as possible. No wonder we end up with a frustrating situation of people cruising like Costanzas, getting extremely mad at each other, and complaining about parking every chance they get…

Different Strokes for Different Folks


A variety of vendors and street life attracts people

Solving the Lowertown “parking problem” means embracing the urban changes occurring in Lowertown. Successful downtowns attract a diversity of people, coming from a diversity of places, for a diversity of reasons, and on a diversity of modes.

And this matters for markets. Studies show that shopping habits depend on how you travel through the city. For example, while car drivers usually make a trip to the grocery store once every week or two, filling their trunks with carts worth of groceries, bicyclists shop in a completely different way. They stop at stores multiple times each week, only buying a handful of things they can carry with them in a bag or pannier. So at first glance, it might seem that bicyclists buy a lot fewer groceries than car drivers. But if you add it all up, the opposite is true!

So it’s disappointing to see a quote like this one…

Gerten said that over the years he’s experimented with trolley-style buses and shuttle buses. Last year, bicycle taxis operated on donations from passengers and a subsidy from the growers association. None of those efforts seemed to pay off.

“They didn’t move enough volume of people,” Gerten said. “You can’t get the numbers high enough to make it worth it.”

or this one…

For now, officials are urging residents to give up the car once or twice a month and use the rail, Gerten said. But he worries that many customers may hesitate carrying multiple bags of produce on the trains at once.

“You’re not going to be able to take it carrying a bushel of tomatoes or a couple big hanging baskets,” Gerten said. “The rail’s not really practical for that.”

stp-lowertown-moat-1Downtowns are all about diversity, and the trick is to provide choice for the customers coming from all different kinds of places, and on all kinds of different modes.

Taking the train to the Farmer’s Market is going to be amazingly popular, and while the director is right that people aren’t going to carry “a couple of big hanging baskets,” those reusable cloth shopping bags are going to be ubiquitous. Similarly, the market should have bike racks everywhere. (Protip: Currently there are almost ZERO bike racks near the farmer’s market.)

Meanwhile, Councilmember Thune’s suggestion of using pedicabs seems like a great way to offer a variety of options to a variety of people. (Protip: Pedicabs are particularly appealing to tired older folks and young children).

If the Farmer’s Market had sensible parking pricing that offered a variety of price points (more expensive with high turnover on-street, less expensive in the farther away lots) and a variety of mode choices (bikes, pedicabs, and the train), the market would attract a “volume of people” that might approach state fair levels. That’s how bustling downtowns work! 


It’s the Experience, not the Onion 

Eastern Market in DC

The key to Downtown markets lies in the experience on foot, not in the parking lot. People don’t go to the downtown farmer’s market simply to buy an onion or get a cup of coffee. They go because downtown is a unique special, beautiful place filled with excitement and activity: balloon animal people, old brick buildings, cafés, street musicians, sunshine, a wide variety of shops, art and hot dog vendors on the sidewalk… All these things are anathema to giant parking lots.

I’ve been to downtown markets in cities across the country, and the best ones offer a unique experience. Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market and DC’s Eastern Market are both legendary tourist attractions. Milwaukee’s new Public Market attracts people to into a historic warehouse district.  The Findlay Market in Cincinnati (probably the closest parallel to Saint Paul’s in terms of design and location) is one of the key things revitalizing the historic Over-the-Rhine district. Saint Paul’s Farmer’s Market can be just as good as any of those, and developing the vast surface parking lots that surround downtown Saint Paul will only make the market better, not worse.   

If the experience is rich and exciting, people will gladly pay for parking and/or enjoy walking a few blocks. Trust me, I’ve seen it.


Cincinnati’s gorgeous Findlay Market


PS: For more on parking economics and policy, see:

Lowertown’s Parking Challenge

Don’t Be Misled by Parking Space Economics

All I Really Need To Know About Dinkytown, I Learned in Al’s Breakfast

A Rough Sketch of A Solution to Downtown Saint Paul’s Parking Problem



51 thoughts on “Embracing Change at the Saint Paul Farmers Market

  1. Julie Kosbab

    They neglected to mention that bit last fall when they were giving PONY RIDES from the surface lot on Kellogg up the hill. (Okay, pony cart. BUT THERE WERE PONEEEEEEEES. squee.)

    Realistically, they have a couple problems:

    1. The street closures around the market, both for the market and for various recent construction, confuse people, especially brave suburbanites coming into the !!!inner city!!!!

    2. People want free parking, and will go around the block 17 times then try to parallel park their Canyoneros into spaces suitable mostly for Smart Cars, thereby blocking the lane for the other people going around the block 17 times. (This is most common at Mears Park.)

    3. People don’t want to walk 3 blocks. Which is funny shit to me, because one of the lots everyone used to park in? Depending on WHERE in the lot behind the old, now disappeared, Gillette building you got a spot… you were walking 3 blocks.

    The surface lot (not the ramp) on Kellogg, even though it does have some of the Lafayette Bridge construction detritus parked there, is $1 and a 3 block walk, with crossing signals. But people freak out about both the buck and the 3 blocks.

    My sense is that EVEN IF the market subsidized parking in the (private?) lot on Kellogg that is currently $1 on Saturday mornings such that it was free for anyone who spent $10 at the market, they’d still have issues.

    Which, based on history, just doesn’t make sense, but there you are.

  2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    At some point the block the St. Paul’s Farmer’s Market is on will be more valuable than a twice a week farmer’s market (and weekday surface parking). Before that time, the market should move to a different location. The vast wasteland that is Union Depot and it’s parking lots seems a great location, that can be indoors in the winter and outside in the summer.

    1. Cl

      This line of thinking, where the potential of a space vs current use = economics devours place, is exactly why I’m so greatful there is a Western border for St Paul.

  3. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    A permanent market (like the ones you mentioned) differs from a Farmer’s Market in a lot of ways. Farmers used to go to market one day a week to sell the goods the farmed the other six days. Permanent Farmers market implies divorcing the farmer from the market, or have six times as many farmers in rotation (all of which is technically feasible, perhaps, though I don’t know if demand is there, since if it were, wouldn’t this already exist?)

    Midtown Global Market is the closest thing the Twin Cities has to one of the permanent markets you mentioned. (Though my mental model is Lexington Market https://www.flickr.com/search?sort=relevance&text=lexington%20market in Baltimore, which is not aesthetically pleasing, but was really huge when I was a kid (and somehow feels so much smaller as an adult). Midtown is more restaurants than shopping now, but a mix is good, and something like that with a better and enclosed location may work.

    If only there were a giant, recently remodeled, mostly vacant, cavernous structure at the terminus of a light rail line that could be used.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I’d be sad to see it go. I don’t know much about how farmer’s markets work. I just really like the way that it functions in Lowertown. Saint Paul could really use an outdoor sidewalk attraction like that, especially once Lowertown starts filling in with far more residential and mixed-use density. It seems like a great opportunity to replace the parked cars (during the week) with something amazing…

      1. Jim

        As someone whose lived in downtown for seven years I’m embarressed to say I’ve only gone to the market a handful of times. Still like you Bill, I’d be sad to see it leave. Although I’m not one of it’s regular customers, I know many others love it.

        I’d be curious to know what percentage of visitors are living downtown versus elsewhere. Given the huge expansion of newer neighborhood focused markets, it seems the Lowertown market needs to focus more on it’s nearby residents versus the suburbanites. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the new Lunds is taking some downtown customers either. Traffic at the store on weekend mornings is pretty steady.

        If the market closed (highly unlikely IMO), but if it did, I’d imagine the psychological impact would be pretty high. That in itself wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. 3M, Ford, Macy’s, the list of businesses that have closed or left goes on. Perhaps it would finally be the wake up call the city needs.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Don’t many permanent markets and farmers markets work in tandem, with an indoor year-round market and an occasional/weekend farmers market? Eastern Market, Pike Place, etc work in this fashion. I think a permanent market coupled with a farmers market would be a hit in either downtown due to the burgeoning residential populations.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Honestly, if this market is so out of touch with its host urban environment and population, maybe it’s ok if it just ends up folding (or reorganizing under different, more sensible, management). Isn’t that the market of markets at work?

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Let’s be honest, St. Paul as a whole (business, government, et al) seems out of touch with its host urban environment.

  5. Jim

    I’m saddened to hear the numbers of visitors is down. Though it’s not too surprising. There has been so much construction around the area. It hasn’t stopped for about five years now. Up next is the new Prince St by the OMF building and I hear Wall Street is due to be repaved. I like seeing the investment being made. But after so many years, even the hardiest enthusiast can get construction fatigue.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I actually doubt that the number of visitors is down. It depends on when you count them, doesn’t it? Rainy day in May vs. beautiful day in August… The quote above about the data doesn’t make me very confident about their estimate.

      1. carol bisson

        The market consistently does head counts on the same weekends every year. There is a chance that the weather the day the count was taken was less than optimal but it all averages out. As a vendor I have seen the customer counts drop but I have also seen the busy times extended through out the day. The buying patterns of the customers have also changed as discussed in another post.

        The St Paul Farmers’ Market is as much a social event and gathering place as it is a produce market.

      2. Cl

        I live adjacent to the market, 8 years. The early market attendance this year is a weather story. Since the Green line has opened the market, and Lowertown in general are as busy as I’ve personally seen them. However, a big part of the increase I’ve seen attend the market via light rail are leaving without bags. While I do suspect the bagless guests do eat at a restaurant, buy coffee, get a hot dog from the street vendor, they are increasingly showing up for the experience of the market. This type of guest is antithetical to the mission of this historical market- with regards to the stringent producer guidelines meeting a discerning customer. However. More street musicians, more people selling cans of soda out of coolers outside the market. More street activity around the markets perimeter. Spectacle of place vs economics of a top 5 nationally noted market in an upward “transition” neighborhood. This is well worth a follow up. Thanks, Bill for getting it started.

  6. David

    St Paul Farmers Market should change w/ the neighborhood, starting w/ say a Thursday night market too, even if not as many vendors. the driver’s grip is lack of CLOSE, FREE parking. pity as most of you say the 3 block walk, or forbid paying to park at the vast Union Depot garage literally 1 block south.

  7. ChelleG

    I’m a little skeptical of the numbers myself. I live a block away and I’m there every weekend, often both days, and it’s consistently so packed that I can barely make my way through. The season got off to a late start, so of course there were fewer visitors.

  8. Old Soul

    It’s somewhat surprising that the idea of the farmers market being at a point of being to large for the space hasn’t entered into the discussion. Keeping it at the same size and place only hinders economic growth as no new vendors can gain access. It’s not a surprise that many smaller markets have opened up as they offer a place for smaller scale farmers to gain market share. As for parking, it may just be another sign the market may be at a tipping point of being to large for the space.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Or it can mean what it always means when people say there’s not enough parking – that parking prices are too low. Although in this case they are low ($1) and it just means people have unrealistic expectations about parking that, if fulfilled, would destroy their city even further.

  9. Debbie Kenney

    I absolutely believe that there are MORE THAN ENOUGH parking places in downtown St. Paul for anyone who wants to come for anything, including the Farmers Market. As you say, the continual harangue that parking in downtown St. Paul is difficult is just not true. It has become an urban myth! I don’t know of any mid-size to large city where people expect to be able to park immediately in front of their destination. Most folks in those cities expect to park and walk a few blocks to where they are going. I know personally that the Market manager has pooh poohed solutions like pedicabs-he subsidized them last year for the first time, said they didn’t work, and refuses to subsidize them this year, in spite of many folks asking for them. I hate to stereotype, but this is the kind of Midwest narrow thinking that has stymied growth in St. Paul for many years. I believe the Market is the right size, in the right place and is a vital part of Lowertown’s revival and growth. Closed minded repetition of “no parking” and non-utilization of new ideas (i.e. pedicabs) are the problems.

  10. Hillary

    I’m a (slightly reluctant) suburbanite who still misses living in St. Paul, even though it was the right decision to move towards work. I used to go to the St. Paul market frequently, and now go occasionally. There are some farmers markets and farm stands near me, but the timing and selection aren’t always ideal.

    Parking is important to me because I may be buying 20+ pounds of produce if I’m canning or freezing. More than that, I want to know what I’m getting into.

    I’m on the email list, but I didn’t hear that the lot is now charging before my last trip (and the card readers were really slow). My old preferred route doesn’t work anymore, and I’m not entirely sure how to get on the correct highway with the bridge construction. This translates in my head to saying maybe you don’t need that artisanal honey or kale and can get your veggies at Axdahl’s on the way home from work instead.

    1. Faith

      I buy from the downtown Minneapolis market since that’s where I work and I also will get 20 pounds of produce for canning or freezing near the end of the season. When I drive, I park far from where I work in the direction opposite from the Farmer’s Market so I’ve started taking a collapsible cart that can hold about 4 bags of groceries. It works great and I would highly recommend one!

  11. Bueller

    For the sake of well-rounded discussion, I think it would be helpful to look at this from a small business perspective. What the Farmer’s Market is outlining is actually a real issue without a totally easy solution. Some of this points to the need for some attitudinal evolution, as every other commenter suggests. But if we’re going to preserve or better build on assets like the Farmer’s Market, we had better do what we can to manage this change as an evolution, not a revolution. There’s a good deal more here that can’t so easily be changed, and probably do pose a real threat to small businesses, which is what Farmer’s Market vendors are.

    For instance, there was a co-op in downtown St. Paul for about 25 years, without dedicated parking, which closed over a decade ago. They did a comparison of their average sale (in the $10 range) to that of reasonably comparable stores with nearby parking. The average sale with parking was six to ten times as much. People did go there more often than a larger grocery store, but that didn’t come close to making up for the loss of sales. Many of those smaller shoppers still drove to a big grocery once a week.

    Which is to say, you can fault the individual’s behavior all you like, but businesses don’t especially control that. And vital businesses is part of what drives people to live in dense places like downtown, and in turn spur new construction in those dense areas. The whole carrying the groceries/plants issue is a real consideration for small businesses, especially that sell things that are bulky or heavy. It gets all the more real when you remember that groceries are generally sold with razor-thin profit margins (something like 1%), losses add up quickly. I’m less familiar with the economics of Farmer’s Markets, but they’re probably not wholly different.

    Stepping back, the larger decision may have been one we can’t do anything about. Just for the sake of a truly thought-provoking discussion, a person might look back and wonder whether this really was the optimal place for the Saints ballpark – readily admitting that ship has sailed long ago, there was a time when the location of the new Saints ballpark was the subject of some debate. There were professionally-prepared conceptual plans for a Farmer’s Market that grew gracefully into new mixed-use development around their existing site, including potential for complementary year-round indoor space. Many people liked that.

    There are several other places the Saints could have gone on the edge of downtown, and though the Saints preferred this site, they had said clearly in at least one public meeting they would go where the City wanted them. It would not be hard to imagine them on the West Side Flats or Lafayette Park or near Rice & University.

    Instead they went next to the Farmer’s Market. This is the one part of downtown where the economics of new development fundamentally work in the free market. The only residential property that to my knowledge was built from scratch sans-subsidy in downtown St. Paul in recent decades went up a few years ago kitty-corner from the Farmer’s Market – the condos at Lot 270. And that was before LRT. Thus, one could suggest it might have been better to use the ballpark to stimulate development elsewhere, and free up the land where the ballfield is for unsubsidized market-rate housing and tax base growth.

    If the Saints ballpark weren’t being built in that location, we wouldn’t be talking about the parking problems caused by the Saints ballpark (see also: http://blogs.twincities.com/cityhallscoop/2014/07/25/by-future-ballpark-market-house-condo-owners-still-locked-in-dispute-with-city-over-lost-parking). We might be talking about a growing, not a shrinking, Farmer’s Market, with more intentionally considered parking arrangements. And that market district would have probably helped spur additional housing growth in our dense downtown. And a Saints ballpark that also would have spurred new housing growth nearby.

    It’s all about building a positive feedback loop of opportunity in the marketplace.

    Which reminds me, this is why open discussion in venues like Streets.mn is so valuable – if policymakers are exposed to thoughtful competing perspectives, it might make for better decisions down the line. Or so one can hope. Well, anyhow, we can also hope that now that downtown St. Paul isn’t a massive street construction closure zone as it has been for at least three years, the Farmer’s Market might just make up some of its lost patronage.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      This is really thoughtful. Thanks especially for the complement about the website.

      I think evolving, rather than growing or shrinking, is the way to think of what’s happening at the market. Surface parking lots in downtown Saint Paul are going away, and for a lot of good reasons. How does that change the dynamics of downtown businesses? Well, they’ll have to shift to appeal to people who buy more frequently. The 20#+ purchases where you fill your trunk is NOT how this market will be functioning in the future, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be bad for small businesses.

      (That’s not to say that it couldn’t work that way. Some of the parking solutions I outlined above might provide the best of both worlds…)

      I think the perceived decline in the market is more due to construction and increased competition rather than parking shortages. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Saint’s stadium operates here next year. Certainly this conversation isn’t going away. Change will be more apparent in Lowertown than in any other place in the city. Some people aren’t going to like it, but I am convinced that many more people are going to be very excited about the “new” Lowertown, and many small businesses will be doing just fine.

  12. Cl

    I think 2-3 good neon signs for $1 parking 2 blks from the market could take care of the Saints stadium parking apocolypse. People respond to neon signs, and $1 parking.

  13. RC

    Just want to chime in here with a few comments. First off, great article. I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed, and with open and honest conversation. I do want to point out a couple things. Bill, I work the farmers market every Saturday for a farm. We were at the market for many years and took a break due to the amount of work it is. We returned last year after about a 5 year hiatus. Your assumption that they are comparing early may numbers to august numbers is wrong. The market is SEVERELY down from years past. You can talk with any vendor there and they will tell you the same. Last year was everyone’s consensus worst year ever at the St. Paul market. This year has been a bit better, but down significantly from where it was. Trust all of us who are there every weekend, the numbers are way down. Secondly, the idea of making this an every day market is completely impossible. When are the farmers and artisans supposed to grow, craft, and make the products that we sell every week? I don’t think that most people realize that doing the market is roughly a 14-15 hour day. You cannot maintain your business doing that every day, plus running a farm. Most vendors are mom and pop type operations and we put our farm’s on hold to be at the market. Most of us have other avenues to selling our products, but this is a main source of revenue.

    I am not trying to criticize your story. The thought that parking is the only issue with the market, is laughable. Most of us think that the biggest problem is, as you stated, the growing number of markets all over the twin cities. There used to be 20-30, and now there are hundreds. Why drive to St. Paul when you live in Bloomington or Richfield, when you pass by 4-5 markets on the way there? Add to that the never ending construction and people are thinking twice about if it is worth it to drive there and fight for everything. Parking could be better mapped out in St. Paul, and I like your idea of charging more for the “premium” spots on the street nearest the market.

    Just wanted to throw in my .02 from someone who sees it every weekend.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Maybe the market is too big then? Too many vendors? Clearly more people prefer newer options such as neighborhood markets on weekends or weeknights, and many people get CSA boxes every week or two in the summer. Maybe the concept of a downtown mega-market is just past its prime, and the St. Paul Farmer’s Market should pare down a little bit to serve its neighborhood. Just a thought.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts. As I said, I don’t know much about the internal dynamics of the business. The “everyday” idea is simply to use some of the other examples I listed here as a model. I have no idea if it would work, or what changes it might involve.

      Anyway, thanks for your hard work. I’m sure you’re right about the numbers. I’ve only been going to the market regularly for 2-3 years.

  14. Bueller

    RC is spot-on. I hope RC gets more of their peers to contribute here as well – real world experience tends to add a lot of nuance.

    City policy choices made the Saints the star in this area, and made the Farmer’s Market a comparative afterthought (along with the Market Lofts condo owners who had their only parking spaces taken by condemnation by the city for the Saints), and that’s what is the core issue here.

    Even with the growth in farmers markets around the cities, the St. Paul Farmer’s Market (which has a brand and history to distinguish itself somewhat), we would have been smart to further distinguish the market by evolving into a year round “foodie” district, with complementary indoor market space. That didn’t happen, and maybe can’t so much anymore, because of the Saints ballpark. And now risk losing one of the things that makes Lowertown great.

    To take a step back, the City of St. Paul and transportation advocates on this site are really good at trying to make their talking points the only political reality. But there’s a real reality on the ground that brings some of the same themes to bear, but is a whole lot more nuanced. The world of PR is about spinning for the winners and losers in a zero-sum game; the real world of nuance is where people listen, hear one another, and problems are solved, and cities are built in mutually-reinforcing ways.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      These aren’t talking points, they’re the best research available on parking policy for cities. I’m trying hard to back everything I write up with substantial research, which is why I have so many links at the bottom of the post.

      I urge to you think a bit more carefully about the challenges of parking in urban areas. Businesses in downtowns are never going to compete on easy parking (unless the downtown is economically and socially irrelevant). Witness the cratered retail districts in both Twin Cities’ downtowns as an example, despite millions of dollars of subsidies for large parking lots. That’s a losing game!

      Rather, the thing that will foster successful downtown businesses are lots of residents and a walkable environment (served by lots of transit). That’s already happening in downtown Minneapolis (residential population >30K and growing) but only beginning to take off in downtown Saint Paul (residential population >7K).

      1. Bueller

        Agreed – thanks for all you do, I appreciate the post. What I said may have come off as overly-sour. The point I was trying to make is that while there are many good transportation advocates here, we’re not hearing at all as much about those with knowledge of what it is to run the market or a vendor (and when we have, we’ve discounted that knowledge pretty substantially). And the transportation best practices may lie in some tension with the needs of these small businesses, who aren’t naturally posting on streets.mn, because this is a transportation blog, not a small biz / farmer’s market blog.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          Yeah that would take some actual study and reporting.

          You’re right that every transportation and land use decision creates winners and losers. For example, mixed-use or “traditional neighborhood” zoning means that drive-thrus, auto body shops, and car dealerships in the city lose out. Apartments, restaurants, etc. “win.” That’s a choice we make, but there’s always someone that “loses”… A giant surface parking lot by downtown creates a “win” for people who want to cheaply drive to and from downtown, but the city as a whole loses out in a lots of ways.

          1. Bueller

            Just to further correct myself, we haven’t discounted the knowledge brought by RC. (I hope we don’t…) And I definitely don’t want surface parking on the edge of downtown as a long-term use either; not appropriate.

            This major change wasn’t handled with the Farmer’s Market foremost in the minds of city leaders. As a consequence, the Market has faced some jarring changes, and I’m not sure once the decision was made to locate the Saints there, there were many options left to help the market in that location, if it did not succeed as planned. And so the market is expressing some understandable uncertainty, given that over the last six or so years, they’ve lost a third of their business.

            Part of good planning – and I suspect you and others would agree – is about maximizing the wins and minimizing the losses, and spreading the losses as evenly as possible – even though there are often (though not always) winners and losers in planing decisions.

            1. Jim

              I think the Farmers Market could see a big benefit when the new ballpark opens, as in 7,000 more potential customers coming downtown on weekends. That many additional visitors will likely create a greater parking crunch though. But it’ll only be tighter because there are more people in downtown. That’s not a bad thing in my mind.

            2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

              Just wait until I do my “why Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is the worst movie ever post. Then you can really rip into the comments section.

  15. Wendy

    Great article, and many thoughtful comments. From my perspective, there is another change to consider – perhaps some of the market shoppers have become more rigid in their shopping due to recent media about the best options – environmentally, economically, and otherwise.

    I consistently see one vendor that has a sign that says their produce is chemical free. If it is a requirement to be a vendor at the market that they don’t use neonicotinoids, there should be signs everywhere that say that. Both for food and for flowers.

    I have spoken to a meat vendor who makes no apologies that the “grass fed” animal is “finished on corn”. I like that meat a lot, but I’m eating less of it.

    And I can get some of the same products that are at the market at my local co-op, which is open every day, is closer to home, and is less expensive on many items.

    Also, I perceive that there has been a rise in CSA’s in the metro in the last few years. Having had one myself for one year, that led to not only no need to go to the farmers market, but also I would give produce away to neighbors, who otherwise might be market shoppers.

    All of that said, construction has been a big pain in downtown Saint Paul for the last several years. The manager at the market should acknowledge that until the stadium is finished, it will continue to be a deterrent.

  16. James L.

    While I can appreciate the concerns of the market operators and farmers, I think there is a reality that was missing from the PiPress story…construction has hurt all business operators in the Lowertown District (and a little beyond). But, the light at the end of the tunnel is the end of construction for the stadium, which will include parking.

    As for the competition, it’s not just the proliferation of farmer’s markets around the region that is contributing to the decline in the novelty of the a weekend market. CSAs have grown by leaps and bounds, giving residents access to fresh and local produce on a weekly basis without having to drive to a market. The Hmong Market on Johnson Parkway also operates daily, providing another option.

    When I lived downtown, I loved the access. Living up by Phalen Park, I still enjoy the atmosphere and access. But, as a CSA subscriber, I no longer have that “need” the way I used to, making my trips much fewer. As construction wraps up on the stadium, things will get easier and crowds may return. The Saints draw, itself, will open the market to possible new customers if the market operators seize the opportunity (much in the way Heartland sees those opportunities), and the Saints see the market as a value-added compliment to their atmosphere. I think it’s quite early to start thinking radical changes for the market as the elements of a thriving downtown are falling into place quite nicely for a successful market. (BTW, before the Farmer’s Market Flats took its current iteration, original plans had a year-round indoor market planned for the first floor, so it is not out of the realm of possibilities — although it would require the farmers who sell there to increase their employment, hopefully paid for by the increased sales of their produce/goods, you know, like a growing business.)

  17. reidmc

    Parking is no worse than in the past. The farthest away I have parked this season, all for free, is three blocks.

    The only traffic problem is walking the market behind double-strollers and yakking extended families. The market needs more space and some wider aisles. Also higher visibility spaces for live music. So they may need to move. . .somewhere.

    Don’t push a large permanent market though. There will never be enough residential down there to support it. A small one, at one end of the site? Sure. Co-locating a craft market and an open-air cafe would be smart, too, and they could run May to October. The market should stay downtown though, to keep a central location for St. Paul folks. And this is where the semi-empty weekend downtown works in the venue’s favor. If people are complaining about parking and traffic now, imagine moving the thing to a high-traffic area.

    And yes, they do have more competition now, including smaller markets in many locations most days of the week. (Hell, a farmer brings a van full of produce to my workplace every Thursday in the summer.) And CSAs take customer market share. Plus the Co-ops have raised their game. Market needs a more visible and more effective social marketing strategy and some creative PR.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Good ideas, but I can see downtown Saint Paul residential population doubling over the next few years (and doubling again if they build a streetcar or something similar).

  18. neb

    some may remember that there was a plan to include an indoor market component a few years back in the building recently built. That plan fell through and the buildilng only includes apartments.

    the st.p farmers market is a real asset and should be improved. This means more programming, more of the time and more public space. there is no parking problem, plent of parking garages, transit and nearby residents.

    One thought, this seems to be a real reason why downtown st. paul needs a business improvement district. They could really allocate resources for programming, organize pedestrian/sitting areas for street closures, etc.

  19. Jim

    There will be some commercial space in the OMF building. I’m not sure the size of the space, but if it’s large I’d hope it could accomodate some indoor market uses. I’ve heard one of the reasons it hasn’t been marketed just yet is due to CCLRT funding coming from the federal side, and may require it usage for transit purposes.

    The space in the new apartment building (Lofts at FM) is very small. But it would seem leaseable for temporary uses. I know it’s been used briefly as part of the Art Crawl. I believe in years past there has been some indoor market space in the Northwestern Building (where Golden’s Deli is located). So there is potential surrounding the current market space. Given the soon to be completion of the ballpark, I’d suggest the market hurry up. Because I doubt the space will stay vacant for long.

    A BID has been brought up in years past, and I believe some folks on the district council are considering it right now. Downtown St. Paul was well served in the previous decade with a business oriented council, but it folded and merged with Greater MSP. It would be nice to see something like it come back.

  20. Bueller

    Two interesting assumptions underlying so many of the comments that they deserve to be pulled out and scrutinized.

    First, why do we just expect the Farmer’s Market to serve downtown, and not a larger regional draw? I get that there is more competition now, but do we expect the Walker is just there to serve those who live and work downtown? The Guthrie? There are lots of community theaters out there, but we don’t just treat the Guthrie as one of them. The Vikings? So why should the food sector be any different? Because they don’t have highly-paid lobbyists? (Sadly, that question wasn’t entirely tongue-in-cheek).

    There’s clearly ways for our already-beloved and nationally-recognized Farmer’s Market to distinguish itself substantially from its competition as unique and the centerpiece of a larger arts and market district. Shouldn’t there be a place in the Twin Cities where we have a truly great market space – that includes temporary stalls (like now), ample permanent space for value-added products (think jams or soaps or the like) sold in an indoor market open every day (which was the concept in the past), perhaps space for a complementary artists market, and room to grow? Wouldn’t you rather want such a place in a downtown, where the multi-modal transporation infrastructure is at its best, and has historically been an agricultural hub? And if you do want such a place to be in the downtown rather than a car-centric location like Roseville, can you put up with at least spending some time and money being spent to smartly thinking about parking to make sure it attracts a broad cross-section of the region for whom cars are the only attractive alternative but like good food and would make this amenity possible in a central multi-modal location? Because that seems a likely real-world tradeoff.

    Second, we should be clear about who has expressed enthusiasm about the new market district. I know the Saints like the idea of being next to the market. I’ve heard the city like the idea of the market district. Much to love in concept. But notably, what I haven’t heard is the Saint Paul Growers Association, who run the market, really embrace this arrangement wholeheartedly. (Maybe I just haven’t been in the right place, but evidence in the press suggests otherwise…)

    Seems like the time is ripe for a lot of concerted outreach to listen carefully to the Growers Association, and as the next years unfold, work very closely to chart a reasonable and forward-looking vision for the future of the market. And then, get behind that vision full-throttle as a City the way we got behind the Saints or the Vikings. Even if they don’t come with glitzy ready-made plans of their own, and don’t have lobbyists, and don’t have a PR campaign, and even if it isn’t a priority for electoral allies like the chamber or labor. We don’t *only* pursue with vigor the priorities that are backed by well-heeled establishment advocates. There are other goals that are every bit as important. Right?

    1. Bueller

      (To be perfectly clear, the “because they don’t have highly-paid lobbyists” quip at the beginning was not directed at anyone in particular…simply it underscores a real and vexing systemic issue throughout our democracy that is perhaps the defining challenge of our political system today. But I digress mightily from the issue at hand.)

  21. Bueller

    (To be perfectly clear, the “because they don’t have highly-paid lobbyists” quip at the beginning was not directed at anyone in particular…simply it underscores a real and vexing systemic issue throughout our democracy that is perhaps the defining challenge of our political system today. But I digress mightily from the issue at hand.)

  22. Ted

    I also read that report in the Pioneer Press. Frankly, I can’t understand why anyone would want to put themselves through the torture of going to the Farmers’ Market. There’s no place to park. Anywhere you can park, you have to pay AND walk several blocks. It’s too crowded. It’s incredibly hard to turn when there are so many people in the way. Driving is impossible.

    Perhaps it’s time for the market to move, perhaps to a suburb that embraces parking freedom, such as Eagan, Lakeville, or Woodbury. Maybe they could even implement drive-thru shopping. Not even Walmart, which generally respects my freedom and time, has that yet. That would be the kind of thing that would support business growth and many folks like myself would patronize that market.

  23. Lee Ward

    It’s sad to see one of the few good reasons for people to actually ever go to downtown St Paul struggling for whatever reasons. It’s really sad to see it struggling precisely because of the massive top down government investment specifically designed to “save”; or revitalize” downtown St Paul! Ouch. I hope the Union Depot fills up soon and the train and almost minor league ballpark help out eventually. Clearly the demographics of people who shop (or shopped) at the St Paul Farmers Market are people who drive cars everywhere and aren’t considering the new billion dollar train that stops right at the market’s door step an option! Why is that? By the way,it’s Pike Place Market, not “Pike’s Place” and I used to work at Pike Place as a kid and it’s packed year round. Christmas, even though it was very cold and rainy/snowy was still packed with people as is all od downtown Seattle year round. I always felt St Paul should replicate what Seattle has done so well and do an indoor/outdoor type of year round market. In the winter it would be like Pike Place, more crafts and food/dining based vs summer which has that and all the produce etc.

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