by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, April 2017) “The West Side Market is one of the most amazing places you are ever going to find,” said Ohio City Executive Director Tom McNair at the Ohio City Incorporated annual meeting on March 21, 2017.
Former President of the West Side Market Tenants’ Association Vince Bertonaschi said he is concerned some of the characteristics that make the West Side Market so special will be lost because of changes instituted in an effort by Ohio City Inc, to “market the West Side Market” that began around the planning for the West Side Market’s centennial celebration in 2012.
When he served as president of the West Side Market Tenants Association, Bertonaschi advocated strongly for his fellow tenants and worked to preserve the West Side Market as a real market where people shop for groceries from small merchants who are involved in the selection and preparation of the product they sell.
After over 30 years at the West Side Market, Bertonaschi decided not to renew his lease this year. It seemed to him that the City of Cleveland was ignoring his pleas on behalf of West Side Market Merchants to lower rent 25% for three years while they regained customers who have changed their shopping habits because they could not find a place to park when they came to the West Side Market.
Bertonaschi objects to recent changes in the West Side Market’s hours, the takeover of the West Side Market’s parking lot by the City of Cleveland, and the plan to institute paid parking at the West Side Market parking lot.
Bertonaschi fought to maintain the West Side Market Tenants Association control over the West Side Market Parking lot. “I’m tired of fighting something that should not have to be fought,” he said. He talked about the history of the West Side Market Parking lot and the role the West Side Market Tenants played in securing property for the lot and maintaining it over the years. Bertonaschi is outraged at the takeover of the lot by the city of Cleveland.
“It all started with Joe Cimperman (former Ward 3 Councilman) and his gang of white collar bullies,” said Bertonaschi. He said in planning for the centennial of the West Side Market, they decided Ohio City Inc (OCI) should oversee marketing the West Side Market. They told us, “The market will do better if we’d listen to them.”
Bertonaschi said the centennial report referred to markets in other cities that charged for parking and had longer hours. “The problem,” said Bertonaschi, “is the other markets were more tourist attractions, not real working markets.” Bertonaschi said as President of the West Side Market Tenants Association, he refused to go along with the plan for paid parking, insisting that grocery shoppers needed free parking close to the market. In rejecting the plan, he said he told Cimperman, “You are gambling with peoples’ livelihoods.”
Bertonaschi said Cimperman told him if he didn’t go along with the plan, the city would take the parking lot from the West Side Market Tenants’ Association. Bertonaschi said Cimperman told him that he didn’t care what he thought because he didn’t live in Cimperman’s ward.
Bertonaschi, who lives in the West Park neighborhood, said he went to his own Councilman Martin Keane for help in keeping the parking lot under control of the West Side Market merchants, but Keane was of no help. Bertonaschi said only Councilman Michael Polensek, a West Side Market shopper, voted against the proposal by the City of Cleveland not to renew the West Side Market’s lease on their parking lot.
Bertonaschi noted that the West Side Market merchants had a long-standing gentleman’s agreement with the city of Cleveland over the parking lot. The merchants had maintained and operated the lot for years and in the past had even used their own money to purchase parcels that became part of the parking lot. This history did not seem to matter to the city and they took over the parking lot.
Fay Harris, an Ohio City resident involved in neighborhood discussions concerning the West Side Market, said that Neighborhood Progress Inc. told OCI to use the West Side Market as an engine to attract businesses to fill vacant storefronts in the neighborhood. Harris also said Councilman Cimperman promised OCI the West Side Market parking lot would generate $250,000 per year that could be used for maintenance and salaries.
Requests by the West Side Market merchants to have between 1 ½ and two hours of free parking for their shoppers would reduce the revenue stream the organization hoped to generate, said Harris.
This plan seems to have backfired as Mayor Frank Jackson’s Chief of Staff Ken Silliman told area residents at a public meeting that the money from parking fees at the West Side Market would have to be used to pay off bonds on downtown parking garages. Only fees from the Hicks lot could be used toward maintenance needs at the West Side market. It is unclear from City of Cleveland documents if this is true. Audits of financial statements from the City of Cleveland Department of Public Works Division of Parking Facilities, secured by Fay Harris, indicate that the revenue from the West Side Market lot is not necessary to pay off the bonds. The City of Cleveland is currently meeting its payments on the bonds without revenue from the West Side Market parking lot. From reviewing city documents, it looks as though the parking revenue from the lot is simply backup security for the bonds, and the revenue is not needed for payments on the bonds.
Once the City of Cleveland had control of the parking lot, they began to redesign the lot along with the nearby Hicks lot in a plan to add 125 more parking spaces. The construction on the lot disrupted parking behind the West Side Market for 10 months. Bertonaschi said he petitioned the City of Cleveland to reduce rents for market tenants by 25% for three years to help them financially as they tried to regain customers who went to shop elsewhere when they could not find parking spots during the construction.
The problem of a shortage of parking places predates the work on the lot, large restaurants, bars and other new venues in the neighborhood were already encroaching on the parking traditionally reserved for West Side Market shoppers. At a meeting at Great Lakes Brewery, in a discussion of where the outside market merchants were going to park, Mayor’s Chief of Staff Ken Silliman suggested they could park at a lot on W. 25th and Detroit and take a shuttle bus to the West Side Market. As President of the West Side Market Tenants Association, Bertonashi rejected the idea of merchants standing on a corner at 4 or 5 a.m. waiting for a shuttle bus with their change money for the day as out of hand.
Speaking of area merchants in the surrounding neighborhood, Bertonashi says, “They moved in and didn’t have to pay anything for parking.” He said they stole the West Side Market Parking lot that the market merchants had cared for since the 1960s. Bertonashi believes the large businesses in the neighborhood should have joined together to build a parking garage or find their own solution to their parking needs rather than commandeering the West Side Market parking lot.
He said adding insult to injury, after taking over the lot, the City of Cleveland Director of Public Works charged the West Side Market merchants $86,000 per year to pay for security for the lot. When asked why he didn’t ask other businesses in the neighborhood to contribute to the cost of security, Cox told West Side Market tenants, “Because I can’t add it to their rent.” Bertonashi said prior to the City of Cleveland taking over the lot the market, merchants were paying only $76,000 a year for both maintenance and security for the parking lot.
The construction compounded the parking problem. Bertonaschi said in retail, once you lose customers, it is very hard to get them back. His petition for a rent reduction for market tenants resulted only in an offer from the City of Cleveland to reduced 50% rent for one month on only the market stands. Bertonaschi, who also pays rent for cooler space, said the reduction was not enough for him to justify staying at the West Side Market. That coupled with the demands by the City of Cleveland that merchants open on either Sunday or Monday factored in his decision not to renew his lease after 30 years at the West Side Market.
Bertonaschi explained he takes pride in having fresh meat for customers that shopped for beef at Vince’s Meats. He would get sides of beef delivered on Mondays and spend Monday and Tuesday down in the cooler breaking and cutting up meat. He would sell the fresh meat on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Selling the last of the meat on Saturday. Vince said this process, along with setting-up and closing-down the stand on days it was open, consumed about 60 hours per week. He said the loss of customers in recent years due to lack of parking, has resulted in him putting in his own money from his Social Security check to help keep the stand open.
Bertonaschi said some larger merchants own multiple stands at the West Side Market and can afford to hire help. Also, those that simply hire people to sell wholesale goods, might be able to afford to open on Sundays. He could not afford to do so without compromising the quality of his product. He said, opening another day would simply increase the cost of selling the same amount of meat. Bertonaschi predicted the new rules at the West Side Market would result in some of the smaller merchants that run their own stands, being forced to leave or hire help.
Bertonaschi said the West Side Market would lose its personal touch. Merchants like him would no longer be able to spend hours in the cooler breaking, cutting and preparing meat for sale. Instead they would be tempted to purchase pre-cut or prepackaged food for sale and then the products available at the West Side Market would be no different from the average grocery store. The West Side Market would lose the vibrancy of having merchant stand owners selling products they themselves had a hand in creating or preparing for sale.
With threats from the City of Cleveland to take away leases of market tenants who didn’t open on a Sunday or Monday, and a threatening letter to merchants forbidding them to talk to the media, Bertonashi said, “If you are an animal in a kennel, you have more rights than a tenant at the West Side Market.”
Bertonashi blames former Councilman Joe Cimperman, former Ohio City Incorporated Executive Director Eric Wobser, Mayor’s Chief of Staff Ken Silliman and Mayor Frank Jackson (because it happened on his watch) for creating “something that they might not be able to fix.” Bertonashi said the solution would be not to have caused the problem in the first place.