Food hub dream flounders on heavily funded, flawed plan

A project once described in City of Vancouver documents as the “jewel in the crown” of the local food system has been dug up and possibly transplanted, leaving behind a murky trail of heavy spending and lack of accountability.

A project once described in City of Vancouver documents as the “jewel in the crown” of the local food system has been dug up and possibly transplanted, leaving behind a murky trail of heavy spending and lack of accountability.

Few could argue with the goal of a “permanent, year-round, centrally located facility that meets the City’s growing demand for local food in a more accessible, flexible, affordable and efficient way.”

That’s how the New City Market (NCM) was envisioned in 2007 by a group of local food activists, led by Your Local Farmers Market Society (aka Vancouver Farmers Markets – VFM). It would be a food hub housing “year-round weekly indoor farmers and chefs markets, as well as a commercial kitchen, storage and local farm-product distribution support.”

It would be modelled on markets in other cities, like the Calgary Farmers Market, once named “the best-planned farmers market on the continent.”

Except that the Vancouver vision, unlike Calgary’s, where the market is run by farmers and has no support from government or outside funders, was for a non-profit partnership with the City of Vancouver. The city would hand over city land “at a very small cost,” and the hub would require operating subsidies.

To date, the NCM, through VFM, has been granted $412,000 (including around $10,000 from the City of Vancouver, the rest from foundations), of which “approximately $200,000” has been spent over four years, according to VFM executive director and NCM champion Tara McDonald. That money was for a business plan that was never finalized and appears to have been shelved.

In spite of years of workshops, outreach meetings and consultations, the original plan didn’t involve farmers. The project started with an architectural rendering of a building on a preferred city-owned site, then tried to make it feasible.

“By the time they brought farmers into the consultation, it was too late. They had a bad taste in their mouths about it,” said Mary Forstbauer, a pioneer organic farmer and former president of the BC Association of Farmers Markets. “What they’re trying to sell us is something that most of us farmers don’t really need – even the small farmers. We need a permanent home for the farmers market, so we don’t have to wonder every year if we’re going to be moving. But we don’t need another distribution place or another warehousing place.”

Other farmers are wary of giving up the convenience and neighbourhood appeal of smaller one-day farmers markets, which continue to grow in number and popularity.

In an attempt to avoid problems like the financial collapse of the $7 million government-supported Halifax Seaport Farmers Market, NCM proponents kept buying more time to try to make a flawed model work. They missed 2012 deadlines for securing a site, completing a business plan and creating a separate governance structure for the NCM. They resisted attempts to bring them into partnerships with the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society and private developers. Meanwhile municipalities like Pemberton are now about to start construction of a permanent market structure using less money than NCM has spent on planning alone.

“How do you spend all this money and have nothing to show for it?” asked Forstbauer.

Now, finally, the city has pushed the project into a possible partnership with the Potluck Café Society and the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, which is looking for a new location for its headquarters by 2017.

There could be a fit. But VFM has to acknowledge that after $412,000 in funding and four years of failed efforts, it’s time to hand this off to someone else.