For four years, the West Broad Farmer’s Market has served Athens-Clarke County as both a market and and a community garden with the goal of creating a neighborhood-based economy for the occupants of the West Broad neighborhood. Now, however, community members are concerned that renovations proposed by the Clarke County School District may displace the market.
According to information on community activism group Athens For Everyone's website, the Clarke County School District may be considering plans to renovate the former Rutland School property for new offices, which may result in the garden and market "being moved and diminished to only 30 percent of the current size."
Willa Fambrough is a vendor at the West Broad Farmers Market and one of these concerned community members who had hoped to see the market grow in coming years, not shrink.
Fambrough has recently become an advocate for the farmers market after writing an open letter to the Clarke County school board and system superintendent Dr. Philip Lanoue. In her letter, Fambrough outlined the positive effects that the market has on not only her, but the community and local economy.
According to Ms. Fambrough’s letter, between private and federal grants and wages earned for the West Broad Farmers Market, "there has been over $1 million brought into the community." In addition, the market has hosted thousands of Clarke County School District students and provides a marketplace for anywhere from 40 to 50 vendors every year, according to the letter.
However, in an interview with The Red & Black, Fambrough made it clear the West Broad Farmers Market is not by defined by its numbers, but instead by its positive impact on her community.
Every Saturday, Fambrough sets up shop, sometimes accompanied by her granddaughter, and sells fresh, home-baked goods to the community. Since beginning her work at the market, Fambrough said the community has changed for the better.
“Before the market, there were drug dealers on every corner,” she said. “You don’t see that element around anymore. The people in the neighborhood are protected.”
Fambrough also included in her open letter that there used to be drug deals on Paris and Minor streets, but "now there isn't."
“Now the vandalism has stopped. The school, market, and garden have become so important to the neighborhood they are in preservation mode and now they stand as protectors of what it has become," the letter reads.
Fambrough’s letter has reached many in the Clarke County community, including the Clarke County Board of Education members.
Greg Davis, the District One representative on the board, was one of the four members that had responded to Fambrough as of press time. Davis also spoke with The Red & Black about the cause and said citizens like Fambrough are important to the school board.
“I do feel like that people like Ms. Fambrough, The Land Trust, the historical preservation folks as well as just active community people can help shape what is to come," Davis said. “If what has been put out there so far is not the satisfaction of the community folks, then that needs to come out.”
Davis added that at a recent meeting discussing the plan, he spoke out in favor of the garden and that the superintendent supported him. He also emphasized that the current plans the board has created are still preliminary. Original plans anticipated renovations might begin as soon as 2017, but nothing has been finalized yet, according to Davis.
So far $10,000 have been paid for a site survey and an upcoming design fee will run $369,000. Overall, the project will cost $6 million, part of which will be paid by a one percent sales tax community members will vote on in November, according to Davis.
“All I can say is this is in the very beginning stages. What has been proposed thus far was to move the garden across the street,” he said. “The problem with that idea is the fact that it’s only 30 or 35 percent of the size of what’s being used now. It’s space that can be utilized but it is not going to take the place of what we have now.”
This reduction is what concerns Fambrough. She said she feels the amount of space is not enough to accommodate the market, which already is small and positioned on a half-acre of land. Fambrough also expressed frustration that she had not heard back from many of the board members or the school’s superintendent.
“It's been over seven days that I contacted all of the board and I have some feelings about that, especially about not being contacted by Dr. Lanoue," she said. "Even if you're telling me, ‘No we already did it, it's set in stone, it's over, this is it.’ At least you get back with me.”
Should the market be moved, Fambrough worries about the effects that the surrounding neighborhood may experience.
Currently, she said, the historically-black community depends heavily on the market for fresh fruits and vegetables.
"If you live in that neighborhood, you cannot carry two or three grocery bags from Kroger to your house if you don’t have any transportation," she said.
To her, the market is vital because it serves as a gathering place for not only members of the community, but also nearby neighborhoods and college students alike.
“I think that it would affect them financially, mentally and spiritually,” she said. “With the market been where it is, there's always an opportunity for people in the neighborhood, not only to come to the market and enjoy the fresh foods but as a place of community.”
At a second school board meeting concerning the West Broad Market Thursday night, 19 concerned citizens spoke on behalf of the West Broad Farmers Market and Garden, including Fambrough.
Many who spoke expressed frustration and said the school board had not been fully informing the community about their plans. Many citizens said that they were unaware of the board’s decision to pay for the $369,000 design fee that displaced the market.
Because citizens will ultimately vote to institute this sales taxes, Davis said public approval is vital for the renovations to be approved. In order to gain public approval for this vote, Davis added that board members will have to work quickly and listen to the community’s demands.
The board’s first step towards gaining public approval will be creating a stakeholder’s group that will allow those who support the garden to have a voice in the building plans.
According to Davis, these meetings have brought the garden and market’s importance to the forefront of the board’s renovation agenda.
“It’s put the school board on notice that we really need to respect this community," Davis said.