The Ashland Planning Commission has approved allowing the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market to open earlier in the spring and sell prepared foods on Saturdays at its downtown Ashland location — but debate over the changes exposed simmering tensions among brick-and-mortar stores that disagree over whether the market helps or hurts their businesses.
About 20 people representing businesses ranging from Standing Stone Brewing Co. to TreeHouse Books to Mix Sweet Shop signed a petition in support of the market.
But people representing 15 businesses petitioned for the market to run on Sunday, not Saturday, and be limited to only produce and other agricultural products. Those businesses included Paddington Station, Hanson Howard Gallery and several other clothing, book, jewelry and art stores.
The Planning Commission voted this week to allow the market to open in March rather than May. The market will still run through November and operate on Saturdays.
The market will be allowed to sell agriculturally based crafts, such as beeswax candles and wool yarn, but other crafts, such as pottery and cutting boards, will likely be banned. All crafts previously had been barred, although some vendors have been selling items such as beeswax candles, pottery and yarn.
Vendors can sell prepared foods — but not hot prepared foods — under the new rules, which could go into effect at the end of July if the Planning Commission finalizes the changes and no one appeals.
Back in 2011, city officials approved allowing the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market to close Oak Street on Saturdays and operate there. The market is also open with a larger number of vendors and products on Tuesdays at the National Guard Armory in Ashland.
A number of restrictions were originally imposed in an effort to reduce direct competition between brick-and-mortar stores and the downtown market.
The market was only supposed to sell fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, bedding plants, meat, eggs, cheese, bread, pasta, dog bones and jam.
Jeffrey Compton of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory downtown said the Saturday market is harming downtown businesses and should move to a different location.
"Our sales are down 30 percent on Saturdays during their hours of operation. We had to lay off a Saturday employee," he said.
Ken Silverman of Nimbus clothing and gift store downtown said his business carries products made by artisans and craftspeople.
Many downtown business people are craftspeople who have made the jump to brick-and-mortar stores, said Silverman, a former woodturner.
They are working in a difficult, crowded, competitive setting with seasonal downturns, he said.
"There are four good months and eight terrible to marginal months for retailers," Silverman said.
Alex Amarotico of Standing Stone Brewing Co. said his business fully supports the market on Oak Street and the change to expand its season and offerings.
He said the market adds vitality to the downtown, and while it inconveniences some people, the benefits outweigh any negatives.
Ashland resident Bill Francis, who has been selling his pottery at the Tuesday and Saturday market locations, said the market provides a venue for people to create jobs for themselves. It promotes cottage industries, said Francis, who also sells at the downtown Lithia Artisans Market.
"I no longer have to travel out of town to sell," he said.
His pottery sales at the Tuesday market violate city-imposed regulations.
City staff members have been investigating complaints about products that don't comply with rules since the Saturday market first launched in 2011. They then work with the market to adjust offerings. Complaints have tapered off lately, said City of Ashland Associate Planner Derek Severson.
Market General Manager Lori Hopkinson said the market boosts the number of people shopping downtown, which offsets any negative impacts from competition.
"We feel we can bring in a lot of foot traffic our neighboring businesses can harness," she said.
Market vendors often answer shoppers' questions about Ashland and direct them to places where they can go to eat, get a beer, buy stationery or find a pharmacy, Hopkinson said.
As part of the changes approved by the Planning Commission, the market will reconfigure booths so shoppers can better reach the sidewalk that runs in front of businesses on the west side of Oak Street.