Should Ashland's downtown be a place where tourists can buy art and locals also can buy vegetables?

Should Ashland's downtown be a place where tourists can buy art and locals also can buy vegetables?

That's a question city planners are grappling with this week as they decide whether to approve the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market's proposal to close Oak Street to vehicle traffic and sell produce there on Saturdays beginning this spring.

The owner of the Hanson Howard Gallery downtown is concerned that if the growers market moves to Oak Street, the gallery will draw less business from tourists, its main customer base. "For the market to be right smack in middle of the busiest part of town doesn't make sense to me," said Judy Howard, gallery owner. "It seems like it's going to be a huge inconvenience to the locals, who I'm sure are their primary buyers."

Midday Saturday, when the market would be open, is typically the gallery's busiest time, she said. The gallery, which Howard said is the city's oldest and was established in 1979, is located on North Main Street but has been planning for several months to move to 89 Oak St. in May, because its current lease is nonrenewable.

"When there's an outdoor market, all the attention is given to the middle of the street and people are having fun being outside, so they're not going to go into a shop inside, particularly a gallery," Howard said. "And they're all going to be carrying groceries anyway."

Meanwhile, Heidi Dawn, Saturday market manager, said her research indicates that downtown shops would do more business if the market opened on Oak Street.

A 2003 study by the Oregon State Small Farms Program found that businesses reported a 30 percent increase in sales when farmers markets opened nearby, she said. "From my own research, calling galleries in other cities, those statistics are true across the board, whether the business is high-end or not," she said. "I think it's exciting to think of locals shopping in downtown shops and really being part of the downtown economy," Dawn said. "And tourists come out of their way to come to the Saturday market. I've seen people buy a $1,500 table with zucchinis in hand."

Farmers markets create an atmosphere that is attractive to locals and tourists, she said. "I really look forward to working closely with all of the businesses in proximity of this farmers market," Dawn said. "Maybe we can work together to increase all of our sales and draw more tourists and locals."

City planners expect to make a decision on the proposal this week, after which critics will have two weeks to appeal the decision.

Howard said she doesn't plan to appeal the city's decision if it's in favor of the growers market, but she's hoping another solution can be found.

"I really feel very supportive of the growers market and I really want them to be successful, but I can't imagine this is the best solution for them either," she said.

She and John Davis, co-owner of Davis and Cline Gallery on A Street, wrote letters to the city opposing the growers market's proposal.

"By allowing the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market to occupy space that is critical to the larger tourist economy would be a huge mistake for some of our long-standing businesses and for the economy of the city in general," Davis wrote.

There are no other complaint letters in the city record on the proposal.

The growers market has been scrambling for a new location after it lost its seasonal lease this year at the vacant lot where the market was held for the past three years.

PremierWest Bank obtained the property, once slated for a commercial and residential development, from former City Councilman Russ Dale in lieu of foreclosure and has only offered the market a month-to-month lease, Dawn said.

According to the market's permit request, gates would close Oak Street to vehicle traffic between East Main Street and Lithia Way from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday the market is open. The market operates from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. between May and October.

Howard said she is holding out hope that the city will consider a different location for the market, but either way she plans to make the best of the situation.

"I'm not terrified, I'm just bringing out these other points because I'm questioning whether this is a good idea or not," she said. "I hope the city thinks it through."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.