With more businesses than ever applying for booths at the Saturday Farmer’s Market, some applicants are questioning the transparency and fairness of the process to land a spot in the outdoor venue.
The city in December received about 42 new applications from local businesses hoping to set up shop during this year’s market, according to deputy city clerk Kathy Strickland.
That’s more new applications than in past years, when the city has usually received 20 to 30 applications. Five or so new businesses were accepted this year, Strickland said.
There also were more applications for booths that sell lunch than there have been in the past. Generally, only a few vendors that sell prepared food are allowed at the market because it creates competition with local restaurants, Strickland said.
The farmer’s market takes up three blocks in downtown Aspen during 18 weeks over the summer and fall. It has about 90 vendors, some who rotate using a single booth. Last year, 16 of the vendors sold produce, and 76 were artisans.
Some applicants have recently argued that the process for deciding who gets into the market is neither transparent nor favors newcomers.
Cathy Markle, owner of Emmadale Farm in Basalt, applied to be in the market last year and was rejected. During the review process, she asked the decision-making committee if she could present her application.
“They said that I don’t get to present it,” Markle said. “I thought, ‘Well surely there’s a time where you actually review these and I have a right to be there’ but they told me I was not allowed to attend.”
Kristen Friebele, a local artist and jewelry designer, was similarly surprised to hear she couldn’t attend a meeting when her application was being reviewed. Friebele applied for a booth for this year’s market and also was rejected. She said she was told there already were enough jewelers.
“I’m not bitter about not getting in,” Friebele said. “I understand you can’t let everyone in, but it’s not clear to me how the decision was made.”
It appears that the committees — there are two that review applications — automatically guarantee a spot for businesses who have had booths in the past, regardless of whether they’re local or offer the best quality, Friebele said. The quality of the product should determine who gets a booth and not that a vendor has been in the market, she said.
To be considered for a booth in the market, businesses in December have to submit an application that includes the owner’s picture and examples of their product, along with a $460 fee, which is refunded if the applicant is not accepted. The fee covers the cost to operate the market, and does not include a business license, which vendors must obtain separately, according to Strickland. Vendors are notified in February if they have secured a spot.
A subcommittee of the Commercial Core and Lodging Commission (CCLC) reviews applications by artisans, and there is also a committee made up of the produce vendors who currently have a booth in the market that decides which applicants selling produce are accepted, according to Strickland. Neither committee allows applicants to be present during the review process, she said.
“They don’t want everybody in there,” Strickland said. “Years ago we let the vendors in, and it was a free-for-all so we stopped doing that.”
The people on the CCLC subcommittee decide who gets a spot based on the quality of their art and whether they’re local, she said, adding that they know what good art is. But it is unclear who serves on that committee and what criteria they use to judge the products.
The produce committee rarely accepts new applicants because the number of produce vendors allowed in the market is capped. The existing vendors are grandfathered in unless they pull out.
“It’s a tight board,” Strickland said. “And there is not that much space to put in anyone new.”
A person in an independent role should be in charge of the review process for produce vendors, not businesses that have vested interest in the market, Markle argued.
“I can understand the vendors who are in the market now don’t want more vendors coming in,” she said. “But on the other hand, if it’s a local farmer’s market how do you address getting locals into it?
“We have directly interested parties managing the markets, and it seems to me there should be an independent manager.”
The Saturday Farmer’s Market was established in the late 1990s and was initially one block long with 12 booths, according to CCLC member Terry Butler, who has helped the market grow since its inception. Each year it grows in attendance. Last year it attracted 50,000 people to town, according to counters that are placed around the market, Butler said.
“We’ve been very proud of our little market,” she said.
Butler, who has served on the CCLC subcommittee reviewing artisan applications for years, said the main criteria for getting a booth is that the product is made locally. She said she didn’t know that the review process was closed to the applicants.
Andrew Kole, a former CCLC member and one of the founders of the market, said that it makes sense to keep applicants out of the review process.
“There’s a lot of people,” Kole said. “I wouldn’t go through every application with people sitting there to discuss it — that would take forever. The way we’ve operated in the past is if someone is refused, they can obviously ask why, and they can come to a meeting and plead their case.”
That rarely happens, and Kole doesn’t remember there ever being a problem with the process.
Vendors who have booths need to re-apply each year, but for the most part artisans who have been in the market in previous years get priority, he said.
“We kind of respect those that have been there for a while,” Kole said. “... We’re not going to leave you because we find something better.”
That was the case for Jean Robert’s Gym, which was allowed a booth one year after market organizers realized there was room for one more vendor. The gym was ensured a booth the following year because it had been there previously, Kole said.
City Attorney Jim True acknowledged that the review process appears to be confusing. It’s not something that he has been involved with, but he plans to look into it further, True said.
“The process needs to be transparent and fair,” he said. “And I think [the market organizers] strive for that.”