Can Downtown Inc. Mend Fences at Farmers Market Forum?

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Downtown Inc's farmer's market. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

A community forum Oct. 7 in Santa Ana’s eclectic Artists Village could be an important litmus test for whether the controversial booster organization Downtown Inc. can mend fences with a group of artists and nonprofit organizations that have grown increasingly bitter about the agency.

The forum will discuss organizing a farmers market downtown. Downtown Inc. had planned to test-run a farmers market on Sycamore Street during a Santa Ana Art Walk night, when patrons from across the region flood the area to tour art galleries and dine at restaurants.

The market would sell fresh produce and cater particularly to local chefs, according to Downtown Inc. Executive Director Vicky Baxter.

But the plan immediately sparked outrage among artists and Lara Montagne, executive director of The Grain Project, a nonprofit that had previously operated a downtown farmers market.

Artists said they weren’t consulted about an event they argue could hurt art sales. Montagne complained that since she has run the past farmer’s market and consulted on others, she should have been advising Downtown Inc. on their attempt.  But the organization rebuffed her requests to make suggestions, something that "baffled" her, she said.

Montagne also expressed suspicion about the forum, saying that she was also planning a series of community meetings to restart the farmers market. And she said that the idea to cater to chefs and not everyone excludes the city’s low-income residents.

“I am annoyed to say the least that I have presented this idea and my perception is they’re trying to beat me to the punch and hold a community meeting,” Montagne said. “I think it’s really divisive to create markets that only include certain sectors of the populace.”

Downtown Inc.’s leadership cancelled the plan and struck a conciliatory note. Baxter said she will be attending the forum Sunday to listen to everyone’s concerns.

“It’s my fault,” Baxter said of the artists’ reaction to the planned test run. “I just honestly thought it didn’t in any way compete with them. But we have to take a look at that.”

Downtown Inc., created in 2009, has been besieged in regular clashes with local groups.

Most recently, the Latino group El Centro Cultural de Mexico — whose members believe Downtown Inc. is the tool of gentrifying forces that seek to oust Latinos — rejected thousands of dollars from the booster organization to promote the annual Dia de Los Muertos festival, a traditional Mexican event that celebrates dead relatives with vivid displays of skulls, candles and memorabilia.

A group of downtown property owners have also fought for nearly two years to dissolve the special property tax district that funds Downtown Inc. These persistent activists argue that they receive no benefit from the organization and that thousands of dollars in extra tax payments are overburdening their businesses, which have been suffering in recent years from a sluggish economy.

For their part, Downtown Inc.’s leadership has extended olive branches. They shrunk the tax district’s borders to exclude many of the more vocal anti-tax property owners. And Rojas calls cancelling the farmer’s market and opting instead for community forum “a good first step.”

But concerns remain. Downtown Inc.’s primary revenue stream, the special property tax base, will not be collected next year. As a result of the anti-tax property owners’ persistent protests, the City Council stalemated and couldn’t muster the votes to approve levying the tax again.

Downtown Inc. officials first looked at the farmers market as a potential revenue source but realized that the markets aren’t big moneymakers, Baxter said.

Alicia Rojas, co-founder of United Artists of Santa Ana, asserted that placing the farmer’s market in the hands of an organization that could soon be disbanded is a questionable proposal.

“They’re on their way out. So how are they planning to have a farmers market?” Rojas said.

The forum will be moderated by Delilah Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled, a natural-living store in Artists Village. Snell co-founded The Grain Project with Montagne but has since left the organization.

The Grain Project’s farmers market, which ran between 2005 and 2007, was poorly managed and ultimately failed, Snell contends.

The vendors couldn’t make money, she said. “That's their business, to sell food. And I don't think that's being understood,” Snell said.

Montagne said that while the market's expenses were higher than revenues, she couldn’t get enough support from the city to keep the market going. Ultimately, the market closed.

Snell said that the forum about potential farmers market is an opportunity for Downtown Inc. to make amends with its opponents.

After the artists’ reaction, Snell said, she told Baxter that “maybe this is a way that everybody could come together. Just admit that you're wrong or had poor judgment and offer an open forum to get everybody involved.”

Rojas and Montagne said it may be too little too late. But Rojas said she’s willing to give Downtown Inc. “the benefit of the doubt,” while Montagne said she has a “tiny” bit of hope that Downtown Inc. can be part of the conversation.

Montagne said she hasn’t decided whether she will attend the forum.

The forum is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 7, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Grand Central Art Center in Artists Village, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

Correction: A previous version of this article misquoted Lara Montagne regarding a proposal to hold a community forum on a farmer's market in Santa Ana.

— ADAM ELMAHREK

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