Vendors at the Essex Street Market raised their voices, warning that the historic food hall is suffering a worrisome downturn. Now a deal is in the works with the city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC), which operates the facility, to address some of their concerns. The plan, still being worked out, was outlined last night at a meeting of Community Board 3’s land use committee.
As The Lo-Down first reported, the vendor association has been pushing for alternative management by a local not-for-profit organization. Three businesses – Brooklyn Taco, Heritage Meats and Essex Flowers – recently shuttered, all citing slumping foot traffic. Merchants have said the EDC has not done enough to combat a widespread perception that the market is closed. While the facility will be moving across Delancey Street three years from now as part of the Essex Crossing project, it remains open for business.
Last night, EDC Executive Vice President Ben Branham said his agency was prepared to take some interim steps toward a new management structure. “We feel like we have some very robust proposals to empower the vendors,” he told community board members. First, the city will provide funding to the vendor association so that it can hire a coordinator/manager. Second, the EDC intends to outsource marketing of the facility to the Lower East Side Business Improvement District. Branham endorsed the idea of selecting a non-profit group to run the market, but said full implementation would need to wait until the new facility debuts in 2018.
Anne Saxelby, leader of the vendor association, outlined many of the problems faced by Essex Street Market businesses and explained why they believe a new management model is necessary. “I am here tonight,” she explained, “because vendors are struggling and going out of business.” Saxelby, who owns nine-year-old Saxelby Cheesmongers, said the majority of vendors support the alternative management proposal.
She acknowledged that the EDC had done “a lot to stabilize” the market in the past and said outside factors, including new competition from corporate stores such as Whole Foods and Union Market, have hurt business. But Saxelby added, the EDC is ill-equipped to address the needs of small, entrepreneurial merchants. “They have historically been in the business of saying no,” she said, “and when they have not said no, our ideas have just died over time, gotten lost in the quagmire of bureaucracy.”
Saxelby noted that empty stalls are slow to be filled and that efforts to promote the market have been “as slow as molasses.” An Essex Market Twitter account was set up in 2009, but is dormant because the staff member assigned to manage it has not been trained. “It would be a disaster,” Saxelby argued, “to continue with the status quo and move (across the street) with a market that is for all intents and purposes half dead.”
The initial response by the EDC at the meeting left members of the land use committee confused and frustrated. Lusheena Warner, an assistant vice president, focused on new marketing efforts, such as a branding campaign on the building facade and a new website. But she was peppered with questions from board members, who complained that she was glossing over the vendors’ concerns and failing to address the demand for new management.
That’s when Branham, the number two executive at the agency, stepped in to spell out what the EDC had already agreed upon with neighborhood stakeholders, including City Council member Margaret Chin, the vendors and the local BID. “Just to be a little bit more candid,” he said, “EDC is a large bureaucracy. We haven’t always, in the past, managed these markets and other assets (effectively).” But the strategy is changing, said Branham, and the city is trying to figure out how to run them better and turn its four public markets into “stronger community resources.”
A consultant, Ted Spitzer of Market Ventures, was hired to help come up with the best management structure for the new Essex Street Market. In a presentation to the vendors last year, he pointed out that many successful markets across the country are operated by small not-for-profit organizations. Branham said the EDC, “look(s) forward to seeing whether (the non-profit model) can work in the new facility when it comes in line in 2018.” He explained, however, that “it’s not the kind of thing that happens overnight,” in part because there would need to be a competitive bid process to choose an operator. As a temporary solution, the vendors are moving forward to form a non-profit corporation of their own. Once that occurs, they will be in a position to hire a staff member.
“On the marketing side,” he added, “we have worked closely with the (Lower East Side ) BID in the past. They are a much more nimble and flexible organization.” Branham said, “That’s why we’d like to explore entering into an arrangement with them to take over the full marketing and promotion of the Essex Street Market, essentially outsourcing it to them.”
Tim Laughlin, executive director of the BID, said his organization has applied for a city grant through a program called Avenue NYC. If approved, the Essex Market would see a $30,000 infusion in marketing funds. In a statement following the meeting, Laughlin told us, “We look forward to implementing creative solutions that allow vendors to thrive and grow in the period of transition that lies ahead… It is clear more needs to be done in the immediate future to improve current conditions and we are eager to strengthen our partnership with NYC EDC and other stakeholders to do just that.”
The participants in last night’s meeting went over many different concerns about market operations. A major problem for some vendors is the 7 p.m. closing time, which makes it impossible for many people to patronize the Essex Market after work. The dilemma is that some vendors want to stay open later while others do not. Another complaint concerned rising prices. In the past few years, the EDC has introduced a number of gourmet stalls alongside the traditional groceries and other businesses serving the Lower East Side’s low- and middle- income residents. Some questioned an apparent marketing push outside the neighborhood, rather than continuing to rely on local shoppers. Tunisia Riley, a public member of CB3, said, “The market has thrived (in the past) because of the neighborhood, not outsiders. I don’t get this marketing push.” Another public member, Nancy Ortiz, added, “I have not seen any outreach in public housing or south of Delancey Street.”
In the end, the committee approved a resolution that had been proposed by the vendor association. It read, in part, “Community Board 3 fully endorses and supports a new, locally based, responsible and nimble management structure for the Essex Street Market once a new facility becomes operational.” In the meantime, it stated, “any and all efforts” should be taken to “bolster and support the vendor community on a temporary basis ensuring a successful transition to a new facility in the years ahead.”
City officials, vendors and the LES BID are scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss implementation of the interim management and marketing plan.