Downtown Visalia’s Certified Farmers’ Market reopens despite regulatory roadblocks

Lancaster, joined by many other community members, cutting the ribbon at the grand reopening of the market on April 25.(Reggie Ellis)

Downtown Visalia’s Certified Farmers’ Market hosts grand reopening after a long journey to obtain special event permit amid city policy changes

VISALIA – After months of cutting through regulatory red tape amid rule changes at the city level, the Thursday-night farmers’ market has celebrated a grand reopening on its home turf on Church and Main streets.

The Downtown Visalia’s Certified Farmers’ Market had its grand reopening on April 25 to celebrate the long journey it took to keep the farmer’s market open. A total of 29 vendors showed up to the opening to share their products with the Visalia community.

“We had a huge turnout…about 2,000 people came through the market,” the market’s director April Lancaster said. “We actually received a certificate of recognition from Congressman Jim Costa’s office.”

This comes after the City of Visalia updated its policies around special event permits in December 2023. The new policy included a 12-week rule, which limits a special event like the market to only operating 12 weeks out of the year before having to switch locations. This would have required the farmers market to either only operate for one season, spring or fall, or to split the seasons in half and operate for six weeks each season.

However, it looks as though Lancaster’s downtown business, Organic Apothecary and Communitique, is what saved the market’s special event permit. According to Lancaster, there is a loophole in the special use permit ordinance that exempts certain businesses from the 12-week limit if they have a storefront in the area of the proposed closure.

According to Visalia City Council member Emmanuel Soto, the “loophole” in question allows a special use permit to be exempt from the 12-week rule if it is sponsored by a business with store frontage in the closure area. Because Lancaster owns a shop on the road being closed, she is able to sponsor the event herself.

Earlier this year, after the ordinance was updated to include the 12-week limit, council member Soto brought the item back to the council on Jan. 16 in hopes of removing it from the code. However, the rest of the council voted 4-1 against the decision.

Soto explained that he didn’t like the rule because he felt as though it pinned local businesses against each other.

“They did exempt the Fox Theater from that rule – which I am not against the Fox Theater – but I feel like we should treat everybody the same,” Soto said.

He continued by explaining that the city has discretion over who they allow to shut down the street, and because Fox Theater has so many concerts, it is not unusual for them to shut down the street next to their building consistently.

“I did ask staff how many applicants would be affected by the changes that were made, and there’s only one,” Soto said. “That is a fact that only one applicant was affected by these changes, and that’s the (Downtown Visalia’s Certified) Farmers’ Market.”

Attending to concerns

At previous council meetings, there was concern regarding how the farmer’s market would affect the community – in particular, other local businesses. In a past interview with The Sun Gazette, council member Steve Nelson expressed that he was worried that the road closure impedes traffic and parking.

However, Lancaster said she did everything she could this year to make sure she was not being a hindrance to the other local businesses, and one of the ways she did this was by ensuring there was enough parking.

“I’ve implemented courtesy parking for our neighbors here on Church Street. They’re actually able to book a parking stall for their client if they have an appointment during the market time,” Lancaster said.

She explained that on the north side of the road closure, which is on Church Street, there are a few parking spots available because the vendors do not use them. So to address the concerns with parking, Lancaster chose to use this space to ensure neighboring businesses have an available space for their clients to park during the market.

“I really am trying to be accommodating – as much as possible – to all the business owners down here, because they really are the ones who made it possible for me to reopen the market,” Lancaster said.

This isn’t the only way Lancaster is making changes to help her fellow business owners. After talking with the business owners who have shops that fall within range of the road closure, she explained many of them noted the farmer’s market actually decreases foot traffic in the hot summer months. She said this is because the market is not well attended during that time due to the heat, so it doesn’t bring the normal foot traffic to the businesses that it usually does. 

After hearing this, Lancaster opted to shut down the farmer’s market during the summer months, when the hot weather is at its peak.

“We decided we’re closing the market for the month of July and August, because it does get really slow during those months,” Lancaster said. “That was a point of contention for some of the business owners in the Bank of Italy building. I really did try to adapt our operations to kind of suit everyone’s needs.”

Lancaster also accommodated the needs of the other businesses by agreeing to push the road closure from 3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m., as well as only hold the farmer’s market on days where they have at least 10 vendors.

“I agree with them. It doesn’t seem as worth it to close the street if it’s not a big market and if it’s not going to be well attended,” Lancaster said.

Lingering concerns

She noted that at multiple community meetings in the past, when there were concerns the market would be shut down due to the city’s code changes, the market had an overwhelming amount of support from the community and local businesses saying that they wanted the farmer’s market to stay open.

Further, even with all of the changes she is making to accommodate the community, Lancaster explained the farmer’s market is not out of the woods yet. She said she believes that certain city staff and council members won’t be satisfied until the market is shut down.

“I fully anticipate that there could be some issues,” Lancaster said. “Their goal is for the market to not be on the street. In my opinion, that’s the goal. Hopefully not this year.” 

She continued with, “And you know, city council elections are coming up. Hopefully we get some new members on the council who really care about the community. And it might have to be me if it’s nobody else.”

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