Between an ongoing deficit and privatization talk, Nashville's beloved farmer's market faces some tough rows to hoe 

Market Value

Market Value

Over the past year, Nashville's flourishing restaurant scene has started to attract food tourists, magazine features and travel writers from across the country. But a cornerstone of the city's food community faces serious questions about its future: whether it can continue to operate at a loss, and whether placing its operation in private hands is the solution.

Citing ongoing financial struggles, Metro officials went public earlier this month with plans to consider bringing in a private company to operate the Nashville Farmers' Market. The market has operated in the red for years, and received consistent subsidies from the city. Now, it is set to close the fiscal year with a $633,000 deficit, and officials say it would be irresponsible for them not to look at other options. They will begin seeking proposals from potential private operators this month.

Speaking to officials and market vendors, it's not hard to see how the hole got so big. They say the market's current facility and operating model are particularly costly. While the enclosed market house provides a handy venue for a food court, and the large covered sheds are a good fit for farmers, merchants and the affiliated flea market, the price of utilities and upkeep has weighed the market down.

That burden is made greater by the fact that, unlike many other markets in the region and around the country — including popular ones that have emerged in West Nashville, East Nashville, 12South and Franklin — the Nashville Farmer's Market is just about always open.

"[It's] a true challenge," says Tana Comer, chair of the Farmers' Market Board. "The cost of the upkeep of the building, and of heating and cooling the building, and the fact that it is a 362-day-a-year market creates all kinds of challenges for everyone involved in it. But that's just what Nashville has come to expect from that market. And it's a service to a lot of people in that area to have the ability to get fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year."

On top of operating costs projected for 2013 at $1,499,845 — on an approved budget for fiscal year 2013 of $1,224,600 — the city has been making annual lease payments of $258,000 to the state on the property. The last of those payments will come due in May 2015, but even taking that coming relief into account, the hole remains.

A Nashville fixture since the early 1800s, in a variety of forms and venues, the market has introduced many of the city's top restaurants to local farmers and food producers, a boon in procuring the fresh, locally produced supplies much in demand now from patrons. At the same time, it has encouraged fledgling restaurateurs by providing indoor space for small restaurants and pop-up businesses. Yet the only money the market brings in, regardless of its popularity, comes from rent and fees paid by restaurants and vendors. And people on all sides of the operation say that revenue stream isn't likely to satisfy the balance sheets.

"The rent is already — people can say whether it's high or not," says Troy Smiley, of Smiley's Farm, whose family has maintained a presence at the market for multiple generations. "It's high for what we deal in. We don't deal in diamonds and gold, we deal in cucumbers and tomatoes."

The idea of bringing in a private company to run the operation comes less than a year after a review from Metro's finance department that was critical of the market's finances and management. Then-market director Jeff Themm stepped down from the role in June of last year, shortly after the review, and Nancy Whittemore, director of Metro General Services, has been serving as interim director ever since.

Comer says the market board has worked with General Services to address most of the issues brought up in the report, including better enforcement and compliance with civil service rules, and more thorough housekeeping and maintenance. She says they're still working through the report, and part of that means looking at "all possible options" when it comes to making the market financially sustainable.

But the word "privatization" was startling to some observers outside the market, as well as some working inside it. The arrangement being considered will sound familiar to anyone who has followed Nashville's ongoing charter school debate — Metro would select a private company to run the publicly funded market.

To some, though, the idea of a public-private partnership sounds like a bridge from the former to the latter. And if the market ever were to become privately owned, there's the possibility a company would just as soon turn the farmer's market into something more profitable, rather than struggle to draw blood from a turnip.

"Anything concerns me as far as privatization, of course, because I don't want a skating rink here," says Beth Piper, owner of Nooley's, which offers Cajun fare inside the market house.

Metro officials say the market will remain a farmer's market (in some form) now and for the foreseeable future. The city's current lease requires that the property have a "farmer's market component," and Velvet Hunter, assistant director of Metro General Services, tells the Scene that the same stipulation will be included in Metro's formal request for proposals from private companies (which had not been released by press time).  

"We have no concern that there won't be a farmer's market," Hunter says, with the caveat that proposals from private entities could very well include changes to parts of the current facility, but none that would eliminate the market altogether.

Piper gives the current operators more credit than they're willing to give themselves. Vendors have had their share of issues with the management of the market in the past, but she says she believes Metro General Services has it headed in the right direction.

"I'm very pleased," she says, speaking to the Scene by phone from the market last week. "I don't want privatization, I want Metro General Services to take it over and keep it."

There are also those who don't believe the farmer's market should be expected to turn a profit, anyway. Smiley says he doesn't believe that a private company will be the fix. He views the market — and he is certainly not alone — the way many view civic institutions of art and culture, like the opera or a museum: as something worth subsidizing for the public good.

"It's not a fixable thing," Smiley says. "It's basically something that Metro will eventually have to just subsidize, if they want to have a market. And they need a market.

"You need a place where farmers can come that people can get stuff directly from the countryside. You can say, well, I'm going to the store, I can get the same thing — well, no you can't. You can get a tomato that was picked green and chemically altered to ripen immature, but there's just some things you need to get directly from the farm, fresh."

Perhaps unintentionally, he even invokes Nashville's burgeoning profile as a city — the one that has attracted attention from The New York Times, among others, as of late.

"If you say you're a first-class city," Smiley says, "well, a first-class city has a first-class food supply."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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