City of Cleveland needs to address concerns of West Side Market tenants
by Chuck Hoven
The corona virus COVID-19 pandemic has a way of highlighting injustices and disparities in our society. One area of injustice is something the City of Cleveland has responsibility for, the treatment of its tenants – the merchants at the West Side Market
Before the pandemic hit, the West Side Market was already losing many of its merchants. Now with the advent of the pandemic, many more stands have reduced hours or have temporarily closed due to slow business or safety concerns. One West Side Market merchant recently commented “it’s so slow, it’s scary.”
It is time for the City of Cleveland to address the concerns of West Side Market merchants and create a path going forward that treats these tenants of the City of Cleveland fairly.
In recent years, merchants leaving the West Side Market have cited City of Cleveland actions that have reduced their customer base or made the operation of the business more difficult because of the city’s failure to do proper maintenance and upgrading of the facility.
Vince Bertonaschi, former president of the West Side Market Tenants’ Association, who after thirty years as a market merchant closed his stand, Vince’s Meats, in 2017, cited increased rents and costs with fewer customers as contributing to his decision to close the stand.
Bertonaschi contacted the Plain Press recently to give the paper some papers he saved over the years on the struggles of the West Side Market. Bertonaschi passed away on the last weekend in April. To the end, he was concerned about the fate of the West Side Market where he had devoted so many years of his life. In the weeks before he died, Bertonaschi was working to let more people know about the injustices born by the market tenants by speaking through the pages of the Plain Press.
“To understand what happened to the West Side Market you have to understand a market. A market is like a circus, everything is under the big top. You need all the acts to draw people. Same with a market, everybody has to be there to draw people,” said Bertonaschi to the Plain Press in early April.
Bertonaschi represented the West Side Market Tenants Association for years in negotiations with the city of Cleveland on maintenance, improvements, operations, rent and parking. He also served on the Steering Committee to help prepare for the West Side Market Centennial in 2012. He tried to keep the West Side Market Parking lot for the exclusive use of market customers and cited then Councilman Joe Cimperman, the staff of Ohio City Inc., and Mayor Frank Jackson’s Administration at the City of Cleveland for allowing large venues to open in the neighborhood without being required to secure their own parking. Instead, says Bertonaschi, they were allowed to use the West Side Market Parking lot.
Bertonaschi pointed out that historically the West Side Market House Tenants Association purchased properties on W. 24th Street and had them demolished to make way for parking for the West Side Market. In 1963, the West Side Market House Tenants Association in an agreement with the city of Cleveland sold those properties to the City of Cleveland for the purpose of development of the West Side Market Off Street Parking Project. Back then, Bertonaschi said, “There was a gentlemen’s agreement that the big lot would always belong to the market as long as the market took care of it.”
Bertonaschi saw the allowing of parking by other large businesses in the neighborhood as violating that historic agreement with the City of Cleveland and depriving West Side Market customers of parking spaces on busy days. This he said led to an erosion of the customer base that was compounded by the City’s decision to rebuild the parking lot and install parking gates. Bertonaschi said, “It took the city nine months to do the parking lot, a lot of customers never came back,” said Bertonaschi.
In addition to having their parking lot being used by all the businesses in the neighborhood, Bertonaschi says the City of Cleveland was still charging the West Side Market Tenants Association for the maintenance and security for the lot. He says the amount being charged by the city was more than when the merchants were maintaining the lot themselves. In the last year the West Side Market Tenants Association was in charge of the parking lot, Bertonaschi said it cost the merchants $76,000 to have the lot surfaced and striped, plowed and to provide security and landscaping. The next year, when the City of Cleveland took over the lot the cost to the merchants increased to $86,000.
Bertonaschi described the impact of the increased use of the lot by area bars “The bar workers parked there all day. The customers would drink too much and leave their cars in the market lot all night. The problem would be in the winter when the lot needed to be plowed. The plow guy could not plow the lot right.”
Bertonaschi initially welcomed the interest of Ohio City Inc. and the City of Cleveland in promoting and upgrading the West Side Market to prepare for its centennial celebration. However, he soon felt that they were more interested in drawing tourists for the Market District bars and restaurants than in making improvements the merchants needed at the West Side Market. Speaking of the leadership of Ohio City Incorporated and the City of Cleveland, he said, “These people all wanted the market to draw people for the bars in Ohio City, but people going to the bars don’t shop for food. The bars also on game days would shuttle patrons to the game. The patrons would be parked in the market lot. That meant that for sports events, the market did little business.”
The lack of service by the City of Cleveland and equipment that doesn’t work properly have been cited by merchants for years as making their lives difficult. Some merchants have had to bring in ice to properly store their merchandize when cooler temperatures dipped to unacceptable levels. The City of Cleveland installed new display cases for the indoor merchants, but in the process covered up the radiators so they could not be used for heat in the winter. This resulted in merchants to wear coats while working in the cold months. These problems and more unresolved maintenance issues frustrated market merchants.
Bertonaschi saved correspondence between West Side Market merchants, Ohio City Inc and the City of Cleveland which indicates merchant opposition to the addition of Sunday hours. One major concern of merchants was their ability to maintain the freshness and quality of their merchandise. Vince Bertonaschi explained that merchants, like him, that sold meat were butchers. They received their product on Mondays, cut it up themselves, with the goal of selling it all by the end of the day on Saturday. They sold fresh meat, no preservatives. What their customers wanted and expected. Sundays were also problematic for those selling bakery – with suppliers not available on that day to provide fresh baked goods. Market merchants, who prepare their own specialty foods themselves, also need extra days to put together prepared food dishes.
From a pure cost measure, merchants expressed concern that the extra day would cost the city more to operate the market. Since the West Side Market is expected to pay for itself, those costs would be passed on to the market tenants in the form of a rent increase. Sure enough, rents increased. A combination of rent increases and lost customers due to the loss of customers from the parking lot fiasco, let to more merchants being unable to afford to stay at the West Side Market. In September 2016, ninety-one merchants signed a petition Vince Bertonaschi circulated and delivered to Market Manager Felicia Hall. The petition asked the City of Cleveland for “a reduction in rent commensurate with the decrease in business resulting from the sudden and unannounced closure of the customer parking facility.”
In January of 2017, the City of Cleveland again substantially raised rents. As more merchants left the market, the City still expected to have rents from the market merchants pay for the operation of the West Side Market. This meant remaining tenants faced ever increasing rents as the City of Cleveland tried to make up for the loss of rent from those merchants that left. This has led to more tenants leaving because of the increasing rent. Obviously, a course of action that is not sustainable.
The City of Cleveland and Cleveland City Council representatives should look at this period of time when business is at a historic low at the West Side Market as a time when long deferred maintenance needs to be done and the quality of functioning of the equipment brought up to standards that merchants have been requesting for years. The City of Cleveland should consult with merchants as to how to make their working conditions optimal.
In response to the current corona virus COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Cleveland saw fit to suspend rent payments by West Side Market tenants for the months of April, May and June. While this is commendable, it is not enough to suspend rent payments. The rents should be forgiven. Having to make up three months of rent, with income down, or non-existent for many stands, is a recipe for disaster.
Instead of looking at the West Side Market as an entity that needs to break even, the City of Cleveland should be looking at it as a City treasure and an anchor for the Market District. Many of the businesses, and current and planned residential developments have located in the Market District to be near the West Side Market. If the West Side Market is diminished, those businesses and residential developments will lose value as well.
The City of Cleveland should provide reasonable rent and if that means a subsidy for the market, that should be allowed. The income taxes from all the residents and businesses that want to live or locate near the West Side Market should more than make up for any shortfall.
Vince Bertonaschi was convinced that the West Side Market needs to be a working food market, not a boutique market for tourists.
Merchants who own the stands at the West Side Market should be involved in the policy changes and their concerns should be addressed as part of any plan for the West Side Market. Bertonaschi said the planners from Ohio City Inc. and the City of Cleveland that wanted to promote the market to tourists to increase business for the bars should not be involved in planning the future of the West Side Market. “You cannot solve your problems with the same thinking that caused them,” said Vince Bertonaschi.