Divided markets celebrate outdoor season start

His belly warmed by bannock from a nearby vendor, Prince George musician Darby Yule strummed Old Crow Medicine Show's Wagon Wheel, singing under somewhat clear skies and a brown umbrella middday Saturday at the Prince George Farmers' Market.

Clad optimistically for May in a T-shirt and sunglasses for the market's first day of the outdoor season, he paused to give a tip of the hat to Bob Dylan as people passed between bright green picnic tables on their way to locally produced meats and just-picked produce before launching into little homespun goodness of his own, a song he wrote called Mission Hill. The song could have served as an unofficial lament to a divide that has split the market at Sixth Avenue from vendors at its former home near the courthouse and has many in Prince George scratching their heads at the apparent bad blood running up and down George Street.

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"Most times this town pushes me around," sang Yule. "(I'm) not one to wear emotions, not one to let scars show."

Vendors on both sides of the blocks and representatives of both the Prince George Farmers' Market and the Wilson Square Community Market shared the sentiments of Yule's song - whatever emotions and scars there were weren't on display with the beadwork and birdhouses and most were keen to say, at first, that the only beef anyone had was of the vacuum-packed, lovingly-raised variety.

"It's really funny, I keep hearing about this big fight we're having... there's no fight... well from our point of view, there's no fight," said Maria Pennock, president of the Wilson Square Community Market. "We wanted to stay at this location, the Farmers' Market was going in a different direction, we made it happen... It has nothing to do with them or us or who or when.

"But you can't force people to go where they don't want to go."

Saturday was also supposed to be a happy occasion, as both markets marked the beginning of the outdoor season and the end of winter.

But there were vendors who also felt pushed around: by the town, in the form of city hall, and by each other. Saturday marked another year downtown Prince George would feature two markets, the result of a one-year detente put together by city council in March to go with a warning for both sides to settle their differences by 2016.

According to prior reporting in the Citizen, originally the city had sketched out a plan last winter for a 'central market zone', where the Wilson Square market, along with other community organizations, would move to the area around Veterans' Plaza, in front of city hall and across the street from the Farmers' Market.

But on March 30, the Wilson Square group and the Prince George Farmers' Market Association (PGFMA) both applied for a permit to use the section of Third Avenue outside the courthouse in 2015.

The Farmers' Market Association had held the permit for the past 18 years. In 2013 the market relocated to the area around 1074 Sixth Avenue, beside the Keg but held onto its right to Third Avenue, according to a city report, to "see how the move to Sixth Avenue was received by the public."

Last year, the city received a PGFMA application for use of the space and was assured both groups were working together.

On August 2014, after a membership vote, the PGFMA moved its operations from Wilson Square to Sixth Avenue; that summer the PGFMA started calling city agencies regarding the Third Avenue space and "explained that there were vendors encroaching into their space and not paying their dues."

"We really liked it on Third Avenue but one day, during the Cody Legebokoff trial, we had to move to Sixth Avenue," said one vendor who was then part of the PGFMA but would break off to join the Wilson Square Community Market. "I didn't really like it over there - it was just a personal thing, we were up against the building, it was hot.

"We stayed here... (the PGFMA) gave everyone an (August) date to move to (Sixth Avenue)... I didn't know anything about (the Wilson Square group)... I only knew some people were sitting up on the stairs there...

"I stayed here and the (PGFMA) wasn't very nice to me and they were trying to convince to be part of the market by threatening me."

The vendor said they were told they would be reported to the RCMP and the city's bylaw enforcement officers; they would be fined.

The group "on the stairs" was the Wilson Square group, who, said organization president Maria Pennock, maintained a perch outside the courthouse because it was provincial, not city, property.

"You see the herringbone, that's provincial, you see up the stairs, that's provincial," said Pennock, pointing to the tile and area in front of the courthouse. "That's where we set up last year, on the provincial end of everything, we could not set up on city property because it was still owned by the Farmers' Market, they didn't want anybody here.

"They were trying to have anybody who set up here removed by bylaws or whatever but the problem they had with that is if you're a member of the market and it's owned by the market, they can't remove you since you own it... some stayed until... what I'm told... the Farmers' Market totally gave up the spot, so they could have all their vendors totally removed...

"So anybody who didn't want to move just moved to the provincial side with us...

But then in 2015 they also applied for this spot, which I didn't get, because they wanted everyone off and over there... It's kind of like wanting to have your cake and eat it too... they didn't want this spot, but then they didn't want us to be on it, so then they put in for it... I had no idea they would put in for it because why would they want it if they just gave it up."

PGFMA president Randall Stasiuk said on Saturday he didn't want to comment on the split between the markets ("It's been beat to death") but he told Citizen reporter Charelle Evelyn after the March 30 council meeting that the PGFMA re-applied for the permit to the Third Avenue spot in 2015 because of uncertainties in regard to the outdoor space at Sixth Avenue.

However, Stasiuk said a public market space could enliven downtown.

"We saw the success of the natural amphitheatre outside of city hall... that's a lot of where this public market concept, I believe, came from because you can see what you can do with a congregation of people in a given area and that's what it's all about," he said. "There's going to be some turmoil with it, traffic flows, etc., as people get used to it, but to me it's a great concept."

To help grow the public market concept, Stasiuk said the PGFMA is launching the Friends of the Market program this year.

"We're offering under our umbrella but they're not vendors of the Farmers' Market," he said. "The Farmers' Market is make it, bake it, grow it. In this case we have home-based businesses and other vendors that add to the mix of a total market."

Council ultimately decided to grant the permit to the Wilson Square group for one year.

Marketgoers' reaction to the two markets was mixed - some were confused over the two locations, others didn't mind the walk along George Street between the two areas.

"I'd like it if they worked together but sometimes that just can't happened," said a patron at the Farmers' Market Saturday.

Among the vendors at the Wilson Square market, opinons also varied - some were members of both groups; some would not move to the area beside the Keg but would accept a move to Veteran's Plaza, despite misgivings about the location in regards to space and suitability; another felt the Third Avenue spot was more wheelchair accessible.

For others, while it may not be a Maidan or a Tahrir, they're adamant they're not budging from their spot near Wilson Square.

"I've been here for decades... " said one. "It's tradition, it's where I started. We need to put up with it."

Pennock, the side of her stall featuring a sign reading Wilson Square Community Market,

said there had been talk of three markets during the winter - the Farmers' Market at Sixth Avenue, a public market at Veterans' Plaza and a market outside the courthouse.

"The city came up with a plan - they were going to keep us here, keep the Farmers' Market there, they were going to put IMSS at city hall and have it all as one big city market," said Pennock, who during the interview directed a marketgoer to another vendor at Sixth Avenue. "They would shut off Patricia to Seventh... so independent vendors, who didn't want to be part of a market, could set up (in between the markets.) The three markets would (help) run the independent space in the middle.

"That was in February... we were all gung ho, it was great. We went to a final meeting (in early March), the (city) had changed the total plan... the Farmers' Market would be at Sixth, I don't know what happened to IMSS and we were at Veteran's Plaza.

"Our members said no."

Pennock said she hoped the city would revisit the three-market plan in 2016. She said there is little sun at the Veteran's Plaza location; it's not big enough; water runs through it; and there is some concern of disruption from the nearby fire hall.

Vendors at the Farmers' Market mainly hoped eventually there would be one market, with those with outdoors stalls generally satisfied with their location. Some acknowledged the Sixth Avenue building could be cramped in the winter but one said she preferred the current Farmers' Market because she had safety concerns about the area around the courthouse.

One of the main points of contention between vendors is whether marketgoers will walk along George Street between the two sites or whether it is better to concentrate them at one location.

And a vendor at the Farmers' Market was equally adamant. That vendor said when members of the PGFMA were forced in 2012 from its indoor location at the former Morrison's Menswear building near Third Avenue due to rising rent, members all agreed its now Sixth Avenue location was the best answer.

"We were inside at Morrison's, the lease doubled, it went month to month," they said. "We searched for a new building... had to be a good location, had to be central, something we could afford, which wasn't much, so we found this. We had meetings, more than one, very good presentations, we all decided, let's rent this building, we're all going to move.

"Everything was ready... the other guys decide, we're not coming. Why in the heck didn't you say this at the start, this could have all been prevented... Why did they wait? People put money in, time in, everything was done."

They said every vendor in town would be best served by a single market area.

"We need to be together and we can make a bigger market," they said. "We would all do better. That's it, that's honestly it."

Waiting for bratwurst on a bun at the Farmers' Market, the skies darkened. Ice chips spattered down on marketgoers, forcing them under cover.

But moments later the skies clear and the handcrafted sausage arrived, perfect on a hamburger bun and delicious without the imposition of any condiment.

It remains to be seen whether the rift between Prince George's downtown markets will be end just as happily.

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