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Produce sellers express fears about takeover of San Luis Obispo Farmers Market

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The Farmers’ Market Association should continue to play an integral role in the produce section of the Thursday Night Farmers Market, the San Luis Obispo City Council strongly suggested Tuesday.

Farmers concerned about their future stake in the Farmers Market expressed their apprehension before more than 100 people about a recent change that takes control of produce sales at the popular weekly event away from the Farmers’ Market Association and puts the Downtown Association in charge.

The city will provide mediation services to help find a middle ground between the two groups. Councilman Allen Settle called the rift a “public relations disaster.”

Farmers said they fear they will become a smaller part of the event and that more emphasis will be placed on other vendors such as merchandise booths that bring more money to the Downtown Association.

“We as farmers know how to control the costs,” said Ron Schletewitz, whose drivers travel each week from the Central Valley to sell produce at the Farmers Market.

The Downtown Association received the certification last week required to operate the produce section from the county agricultural commissioner. Before the takeover, the San Luis Obispo County Farmers’ Markets Association managed the produce sales for more than two decades.

Downtown Association Executive Director Deborah Cash said her group’s contract with the Farmers’ Market Association expired in 2003.

City officials said that last year the city gave the Downtown Association $216,000 collected from local businesses in the business improvement district to help pay for Farmers Market and other events.

The city has the power to amend its contract with the Downtown Association to mandate that farmers are represented by the organization.

Cash said the change was necessary because of liability concerns and a lack of communication between farmers and the association.

“We are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on the street” during Farmers Market, she said.

The Downtown Association, which is contracted by the city to manage the Thursday night event, informed farmers in mid-

January of the takeover — emphasizing that the change would not mean any fee increase for farmers or any change in the availability of selling space in the next year.

The matter came to a head over struggles to reconfigure selling space on Higuera Street near Chorro Street, precipitated in part by the widening of the sidewalk to accommodate dining outside the Wineman Hotel.

Another public meeting, hosted by the Downtown Association, to discuss the agreement is scheduled for Tuesday at the meeting room next to the City Council Chambers at 7:30 a.m.

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