Four-year-old Nina Ventimiglia, of Grosse Pointe Woods, tries to help her mom pick up a box of petunias on Flower Day at the 2018 St. Clair Shores Farmers Market.

Four-year-old Nina Ventimiglia, of Grosse Pointe Woods, tries to help her mom pick up a box of petunias on Flower Day at the 2018 St. Clair Shores Farmers Market.

File photo by Brandy Baker


Disagreements lead to change in farmers market leadership in St. Clair Shores

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published March 1, 2019

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — With an announcement on Facebook, the four-year run of the St. Clair Shores Farmers Market, as the community has come to know it, is changing.

Begun by Susan Bunte in 2015, the St. Clair Shores Farmers Market was a seasonal, monthly event held at Blossom Heath Park that had attendance of about 2,000 people each time, depending on the weather. Along with produce, the market grew to include about 70 vendors that included farm-to-table businesses, local crafters, syrup and honey, local foods, nonprofit groups and health businesses, along with entertainment, yoga and petting zoos.

Market Manager Jennifer Palacio, of St. Clair Shores, said the market began with a loose agreement with the city that the farmers market funds would be processed through the city’s account and put into an account for the market. When Palacio needed to pay a bill, she would fill out a form and send it with documentation to the city to be paid out of the fund.

“This worked great for a few years, and then this past year, I started having problems. Things that we had raised money for were being denied and bills were not getting paid, and I called and questioned it,” Palacio said Feb. 25.

She said that she was told by the city’s finance director that the money was city money, and so if they wanted more control over it, they would need to form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Palacio said that the market had a need for a computer and software designed to help run a farmers market, including processing payments and keeping track of inventory. That request, she said, was denied. In addition, the market partnered with Cops 4 Kids to hold the fall food truck rally, as it could not get a liquor license on its own. She said that they have been unable to reimburse Cops 4 Kids for its expenses related to that event because the bills have not been paid.

“They stopped sending us our copy of the bank statement in November, and they also cut us off from our mail. I don’t know if they have been intercepting our bills and paying them or if we are owing people money,” Palacio said. “It’s been a nightmare.”

That’s what prompted Palacio, Treasurer Bonnie Dell and Bunte to post on the market’s Facebook page the evening of Feb. 24 that they would no longer host a farmers market.

“A part of the vision for the Farmers Market, was to become a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, in order to better serve the needs of our community, and we have finally reached that goal this season. Unfortunately, the city has not supported this decision and with very heavy hearts, we must inform you that there will no longer be a Farmers Market,” the post states.

Mayor Kip Walby said that he felt “blindsided” by the actions taken by the organizers of the market.

“The city supported the farmers market, and the (Tax Increment Finance Authority) has given them” tens of thousands of dollars in support over the years, he said.

The city improved electrical and lighting issues at the park, removed fencing and improved landscaping to make Blossom Heath Park more amenable for the market.

“We have bent over backward. It has been a very, very good partnership with the farmers market and the city and the TIFA,” Walby said. “We had issues with them becoming this nonprofit. In my opinion, I was blindsided by the fact that they hired an attorney and sent us a letter Dec. 19 saying they had already gone down that path.”

City Manager Mike Smith said that the city explained to the organizers of the market in 2015 that “it’s harder to spend money when it’s taxpayers’ dollars.”

“They were never happy about it, but they understood,” he said.

When they requested to purchase the computer, he said, the Finance Department informed them that it would have to be purchased through the city’s IT Department and adhere to the city’s computer use policies. At least three quotes would be needed for a product costing more than $1,000 to adhere to the city’s purchasing policies, Smith explained.

“It was going to take a little longer than they liked, and they did complain that it was going to take too long,” he said. “With regard to the food truck rally and the money for Cops 4 Kids, they came in and gave (Finance Director) Doug (Haag) a piece of paper that just said we owe them for this, this, this and this. There was no documentation to back it up.

“Finance told them we need receipts, we need documents.”

With regard to the market becoming a 501(c)(3), Smith said that would change the way the city works with the group.

“Could we eventually work out something with the 501(c)(3)? Yes. It’s going to take time,” he said. “If we start letting nonprofit groups use our parks for their fundraising purposes, we’ve got to be careful with regard to that and we’ve got to charge you what we charge everybody else.”

Since December, Smith, Walby and other city officials have met with Palacio and the other organizers. Another meeting was scheduled for Feb. 27 before the farmers market organizers decided that they were done trying to organize this year’s markets.

“I tried to keep (the) city manager, (the) mayor and the finance director up to date with everything, but they did not return multiple emails and calls,” Palacio said. “During the course of all of this, the state approved our nonprofit status.”

She said becoming a 501(c)(3) was important not just to have control of their own finances, but to be able to apply for grants, obtain their own liquor licenses for large events and have access to programs for low- and fixed-income patrons.

“It gives us access to a bank account. Things that you have to pay for with a credit card, we have to pay for out of our own pockets and hope the city reimburses us, and obviously that’s become an issue now,” she said.

By spending all of this time trying to get the financial issues worked out, Palacio said that they have missed many deadlines, so they felt it would be nearly impossible to get a market off the ground in just a few months.

She said that it “was a slap in the face” when the mayor then contacted her and asked for all of her contacts so that the city could continue with the market in their absence.

“We’re not sure if the mayor’s intent, all along, was to take this from us and give it to the new parks and recreation director,” Palacio said. “If they try to throw something together at the last minute, there’s no way it could possibly be the quality” market that it has been.

Walby, however, denies “stealing” the market and said that the city could not go without a farmers market.

To that end, in a Facebook post on the city’s page less than 24 hours after the market’s founders announced its cancellation, Walby said, “The City of St. Clair Shores Farmer’s Market will live on.”

“Our Parks and Recreation Department under the guidance of Director Henry Bowman will take the helm and organize the 2019 season. The City will honor the dates for the Farmer’s Market that (were) listed in the 2019 City Calendar.”

The first market of 2019 will be held May 19, with subsequent markets on June 23, July 28, Aug. 25 and Sept. 22.

Walby said that when they hired Bowman, his experience with farmers markets and the fact that he is a certified farmers market manager meant that he could lend assistance to the market. With the announcement, he will now lead the organization of the 2019 market.

“I believe that we had to have it and we’re going to have it,” Walby said. “Are we a little bit short-handed? The answer is yes. Are we working hard to keep it at the high standard that has been set in the past? Yes.”

Smith said that some changes will be coming to the market and the city will do its best to keep it going. He said he appreciates all the work of the organizers, and while he understands their frustrations, the rules in place for spending city money are there for a reason.

“I know the market made the money, but it’s city money, it’s city funds and it needs to be accounted for properly,” he said. “I don’t think these ladies did anything wrong with any malicious intent.”

Palacio said that she and the other organizers are “sickened” by what has happened.

“It hurts our community. We really did put our hearts and souls into this, and I don’t know what their possible motivation could be for this,” she said. “Our sponsors, who we reached out to ... gave us this money in good faith that it would be used to run this market, and that is not what has been happening this past year.”

Vendors interested in being a part of the St. Clair Shores Farmers Market can contact Henry Bowman at (586) 445-5350 or at bowmanh@scsmi.net. For more information, watch the City of St. Clair Shores, Michigan - City Government and St. Clair Shores Parks and Recreation Facebook pages and scsmi.net.

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