Bloomington park commissioners OK lower sales percentage as food and beverage artisan fee, but COVID-19 makes much of it moot

cropped parks meeting Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 8.59.58 PM
Kathleen Mills, chair of the board of park commissioners, was the only person present at city hall for the March 24, 2020 meeting of the board. That’s possible under a governor’s order given last week. Based on a new order issued on March 23, no onsite anchor is necessary for a public meeting. The whole meeting can be conducted by videoconference or teleconference. This is a screen grab of the Facebook live stream the city used to supplement the usual CATS coverage.

In a 3–0 vote at their regular meeting on Tuesday, Bloomington park commissioners approved a reduction in the fee that food and artisan vendors are supposed to pay for their space at the Bloomington farmers market.

The new official fee for the 2020 market season will be 7.5 percent of gross sales, which is 2.5 points lower than the fee that was charged in previous years. It’s not as much of a reduction as the farmers market advisory council had recommended, which was 5 percent this year, with an eye towards converting it to a flat fee.

It’s not a fee that’s going to be charged, though, according to Becky Higgins, recreation services division director. The market won’t be able to operate as it usually does, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Higgins told park commissioners the city  won’t be charging its food and artisan vendors, or its farm vendors, any fees for the first couple of months of the market this season.

Constraints on gatherings of groups larger than 10 people, and other requirements designed to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic virus, have been imposed in several orders issued by Indiana governor Eric Holcomb. The combined effect of those orders is that the 2020 farmers market season won’t be business as usual. The normal start to the summer farmers market is scheduled for April 4.

Based on discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of the park commissioners, some attempt will be made to conduct some market activity in April and May through a pre-order and pick-up system, like the approach that the winter farmers market has tried.

But that probably won’t help food and beverage artisans, based on the kind of sales described to the commissioners by Katie Mysliwiec, of Needmore Coffee Roasters.

Mysliwiec’s comment was read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting by park commissioner Kathleen Mills, who presided over the meeting, which was conducted by video- and tele-conference.

According to Mysliwiec, 90-percent of her sales at the market are from drinks prepared at the market. So she is skeptical that her business would be able to benefit much from the type of drive-through market that the city hopes to put together for the first couple of months of the season this year. Mysliwiec said she had closed the bricks and mortar location for the foreseeable future.

Mills read aloud comments from several food and artisan vendors, several of whom advocated for eliminating their fees, in light of the COVID-19 constraints. One common thread was the idea that the parks and recreation department should focus on the survival of the vendors, not its 100-percent cost recovery goal.

Vendors pointed out that even if the market comes back strong in June and July, vendors will be struggling to make up losses from the first two months. So it is not enough to waive fees for the first two months, they said.

In his comment, Eric Schedler of Muddy Fork Farm & Bakery said that the 7.5-percent figure assumed a volume of sales that translated into about $39,000 of revenue, based on the information in the meeting information packet. The corresponding amount of sales—a little over a half million dollars—Shedler called a “fantasy,” given the impact of the COVID-19 countermeasures. What’s needed now, Shedler said, is certainty. And certainty would come from a flat fee, not a percentage of gross sales, he said.

Farmers at the market pay a flat fee and that’s what food and beverage artisans want, too. The 10-percent fee is consistent with the idea that the farmers market is an event where growers to sell their farm wares, and to which a separate set of vendors sell concessions.

Food and beverage vendors contend they are integral, not ancillary, to the basic expectation that market customers have of the farmers market experience they expect on Saturday mornings.

Parks staff had recommended to commissioners in January that they stick with the 10-percent fee, based on the the parks department’s goal of 100 percent cost recovery. But commissioners failed to adopt that fee level on a 1–1–1 vote.

Even if the parks department had charged 10-percent, instead of the 7.5 percent they approved, a deficit was still projected for 2020.

Based on the the 10-percent figure, when applied to food and beverage artisan gross sales, the city was expecting $118,851 in total revenue for 2020 against $153,495 in expenses. That’s a 77-percent cost-recovery ratio.

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