Discontent at the market

By Andy Balaskovitz

Lansing officials say City Market vendors should adapt to lack of parking; Bernero calls the problem a ‘growth spurt’

One by one, vendors at the Lansing City Market would furrow their brows or shrug their shoulders when asked: How are things going at the market?

Among five interviewed last week, each pointed to an underlying problem for what they see is a shrinking customer base and, consequently, fewer vendors: parking.

“If we had parking, we wouldn’t be in trouble,” said Bob Falsetta, who runs Bob’s Market. “We haven’t got any. Step by step the mayor is running this place into the ground.”

Falsetta has operated at City Market since 1960, selling fruits, vegetables and non-perishable foods. Before the newest market opened in 2010, he said, parking was never an issue.

Mayor Virg Bernero downplayed the parking concerns last week, saying the market is experiencing “growing pains” as development takes shape around it, particularly Pat Gillespie’s Market Place apartments. Another Gillespie project plans for apartments in the outfield of Cooley Law School Stadium across Cedar Street.

“What I see going on is growth and development,” Bernero said. “It’s not uncommon. It’s a period of growth, a period of transition. The dislocation, pain, discomfort — it’s a big growth spurt.”

Market vendors say the roughly 55 spaces available aren’t enough to support steady drive-in customers.

Bernero believes several factors may contribute to the lack of foot traffic, including the need for another downtown hotel. The Radisson has a noncompete agreement that lasts until 2017, which he fought the City Council on when he was a state senator.

“Whoever (on the Council) voted for that is an idiot by definition,” Bernero said.

Bernero also said that, as business owners getting “subsidized rent,” they should approach the lack of parking as a reality. Vendors pay between $1.30 and $1.70 per square foot inside the mar ket, depending on the length of the lease term. They also pay a utility surcharge on refrigeration equipment and appliances, according to lease terms. Bernero also suggested vendors partner with Gillespie to work out deals for new Market Place residents.

Gillespie pays the city $1,000 a month for 16 spaces for market customers in Lot No. 37 behind the Lansing Center near Cedar Street because the market lost an equal number due to construction. He said he was under the impression that the $1,000 would be used for marketing free parking. “I haven’t seen any signs that say free parking,” he said.

Gillespie said he has no plans to offer public parking once the first 80-unit apartment structure is completed.

City officials are counting on filledup Market Place apartments to increase traffic, but vendors wonder whether it will make up for what they say is a loss in drive-in customers.

The new market opened in January 2010. City Market was established in 1909 at the corner of Grand Avenue and Shiawassee Street, now the site of a fire station. In 1938, it moved east of the Grand River to Shiawassee and Cedar, just north of where the market stands today. As of Thursday, there were 12 vendors operating inside the market, plus the Waterfront Bar & Grill. Even City Pulse reports from 2010 suggested early apprehension about the lack of parking at the new location. As of Tuesday, four vendor spots were vacant, though two of those are expected to be filled soon.

John Decker, vendor for Hickory Corners, said there was an expectation when the new market opened that “there would be a parking ramp coming real soon. It didn’t come up. The (city) budget got worse, and here we are in a new building without parking.”

Hickory Corners has operated at City Market for the last 20 years. The parking problem at the new location was exacerbated last fall as Gillespie’s Market Place construction started, he said. Decker aknowledged that there were 55 parking spaces near the market, though not all spaces are free. For example, the flat rate at Lot No. 37 is $6, without a validation ticket. Customers can park for free for up to two hours in Lot No. 21, just south of the market’s south doors, though they must tell the parking attendant they’re shopping at the market to avoid a fee.

“We’re not happy about customers being charged $6 to park,” Decker said. “That’s crazy.”

Bob Johnson, director of planning and neighborhood development, said the city issues to the market manager validation tickets, which are then passed out to vendors. Decker said he received five last week, which was the first set he had received in a month. “It’s nowhere near enough. It’s just enough to confuse customers” — confusing because they’re not sure whether validation tickets will be available.

Johnson said the city has also accommodated vendors by offering reduced parking costs in Lot No. 21, next to the Lansing Center.

“I understand there’s this concern some vendors might have with regards to parking. They’re trying to protect their business interests,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there is anything that the city has done with respect to not trying to accommodate the patrons of the City Market.”

The City Market is where it is — they chose to do business there,” he added.

Johnson said there is no plan to add more parking unless the proposed casino plan goes through, in which case it will be necessary.

In February, the City Council’s internal auditor, Jim DeLine, issued a report to the Council, explaining vendors’ concerns based on reports he heard from them. He categorized concerns in four areas: vacancies, parking, “management involvement” and city involvement. He also noted that former market manager Heather Hymes resigned in February due to a strained relationship with vendors.

At a Council budget hearing last week, Scott Keith, president and CEO of the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, which manages the market, was banking on the traffic issue being solved as more residents move into the area, pointing to Market Place and the apartments planned within Cooley Law School Stadium.

Keith also said LEPFA is in the process of hiring a new market manager and is “developing new relationships with merchants.”

On that front, the city still has work to do, if Thursday’s visit is any indication.

“There aren’t as many customers complaining because people aren’t coming back,” Falsetta, of Bob’s Market, said. “The city acts like it doesn’t care.”