by Jordan Green
Six months after a ballyhooed grand opening, the tables at an outdoor market in the middle of a Winston-Salem food desert remain bare while competing farmers markets thrive across town.
Liberty Street, a thoroughfare lined with aging warehouses and auto repair businesses, runs through the heart of concentrated black poverty on the east side of Winston-Salem, wending along Highway 52 towards Smith Reynolds Airport. It’s a world apart from the city’s tech- and art-conscious downtown, where new high-end restaurants, brewpubs, galleries and parks sustain a drumbeat of collective excitement.
By measures of food access and poverty level, the area is a classic food desert, as defined by the US Department of agriculture. From the intersection of 14th and Liberty streets, it’s a mile to the Food Lion and Save-A-Lot groceries at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and New Walkertown Road. Another Food Lion, at North Side Shopping Center, is 2.3 miles away.
To meet the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of a food desert, at least 20 percent of a census tract’s residents must be living in poverty; 67 percent of the residents in the area live below poverty. Median family income is $12,813, compared to $40,148 for the city as a whole. It would be hard to imagine a place in more dire need of healthy, affordable food.
The official opening of the Liberty Street Market last October, an event heralded with high-flown rhetoric from local elected officials, should have been a moment of renewal for an area that has been struggling to revive for decades. The diagonally placed pavilions equipped with overhead heaters — one enclosed and the other open — would be the envy of any neighborhood.
For all its promise, six months in there is no fresh produce for sale at the market, hours of operation are sporadic, only a handful of vendors have been showing up, and foot traffic is scarce.
From the very start, the project was beset by controversy. Jim Shaw, a community leader who is a political ally of Mayor Allen Joines — he co-chaired the mayor’s reelection campaign in 2013 — had expected that his nonprofit, Liberty Street Community Development Corp., would receive the contract to operate the market. While Shaw didn’t realize he would need to submit a proposal to obtain the contract, Mercedes Miller, a one-time employee of the CDC, independently submitted a proposal and was awarded the contract. When Shaw alerted city staff about the misunderstanding, the process was reopened to allow him to submit a proposal, but ultimately the city stuck with its decision to award the contract to Miller.
Shaw suggested the decision was politically motivated.
“One of the city council members did not want Liberty CDC to have it,” he said, adding that his wife supported the city council candidacy of challenger Brenda Diggs, who was unsuccessful in her attempt to unseat Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke two years ago. First elected in 1977 to what was then the board of aldermen, Burke represents the Northeast Ward and is recognized as the longest serving member of council in the city’s history.
Shaw left Liberty Street CDC last fall, and is now running a program to expose middle- and high-school students to the aviation industry. The board of directors decided to shut the nonprofit down rather than hire a replacement for Shaw, according to various news reports.
Assistant City Manager Ritchie Brooks, who heads the city’s community and business development department, said he didn’t recall exactly how Miller was selected, but acknowledged he was part of the process.
“I would have to go back and refresh my memory,” he said. “We were getting so many calls I came up with a script.”
He said he is familiar with the rumor that staff steered the contract to Miller in response to pressure from Burke.
“I’ve been approached several times with that,” he said. “What I have said and will continue to say is that the mayor pro tem and I never had a conversation with selecting Mercedes as the vendor. If that occurred it didn’t occur with me.”
Burke could not be reached for this story.
The city spent $37,230 in 2014 to erect a fence around the property, with the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem contributing an additional $27,770 to cover the cost of the project, according to city records. Brooks was unable to provide information about the cost of the pavilions and concrete pads.
A writer and motivational speaker, Miller cited the Chelsea Market in New York and the Historic Charleston City Market in South Carolina, as models for the Liberty Street Market in a self-penned article she provided to Triad City Beat in January. But those were only a few of the inspirations that fed her vision.
“Flashbacks of a 2010 adventure to beautiful Brazil, a 2012 business trip to Puerto Rico, a 2013 excursion to my beloved Paris — I have fond memories of all these trips,” she wrote. “What currently sticks out in my mind about each of these grand voyages — the vendor’s market.”
Her prospectus indicated the market would be designed “as a place to provide fresh fruits and vegetables in the midst of a food dessert,” while also emulating the inspirations of her international travels: “One of the great things about these markets is they have a distinct variety of vendors to pique the interest and meet the needs of those who live in the city; they also have an eclectic mix of arts, crafts, homemade jewelry and items distinct to their locale to spark the curiosity of travelers. The market here in Winston-Salem will mirror the same.”
In early January, Miller said in a Facebook message that her goal for the market was that it would operate year round. At the time, she said, the market was open on Fridays and Saturdays, but that she expected “things to be in full swing mid March.”
Since the beginning of the year, Brooks said that to his knowledge the market has only attracted three or four vendors. City staff was concerned that the market was getting a slow start, and called a meeting with Miller about two weeks ago.
“The meeting was called because — we know the market had a late opening last year and there was not the type of participation that we wanted to see, so starting out with this upcoming season we want to make certain that the location is fully utilized,” he said. “We wanted to meet with Mercedes to talk about that issue.”
The meeting included Ed McNeal, the city’s marketing and communications director. Brooks said Miller and members of city staff talked about a “season kickoff” this month, with a schedule of events the city will help publicize.
The provisions of the contract between the city and Miller’s company, Mercedes-Empowers Inc., leaves it up to the vendor to determine the hours of operation.
Under the contract, Miller’s company is compensated through revenue and receipts generated by the market, with the vendor keeping 80 percent of gross daily revenue and the city receiving the remainder in the initial six months. The contract specifies that after the initial six-month period, the city and Mercedes-Empowers Inc. would negotiate a monthly rental payment based on revenues and expenses. Brooks was unable to provide the rental fee that the city negotiated with Mercedes-Empowers Inc.
Brooks indicated that city staff’s monitoring of the market is casual, and whether the market is operating at consistent hours is not a matter of concern.
“I don’t know that we have somebody going by there every day,” he said. “I don’t think that is the type of micromanaging we intend to do.”
The market was closed on a recent Friday, with intermittent sprinkles and a sudden early-afternoon downpour discouraging both vendors and visitors.
The following day, a clear and gorgeous Saturday with perfect temperatures, market manager Terrance McNeil was the only person at the market for a period in the late morning. The only goods to be seen was a rack of ladies embroidered jackets. McNeil was minding the store while the vendor went to get an early lunch. He said a group of ladies leading a zumba class had just finished up.
The previous day’s rain might have deterred some vendors, McNeil said. Another vendor, the Bean Lady, had a meeting. A soap vendor was a no-show, along with a lemonade vendor, who comes from time to time.
While the pavilions are heated and one is enclosed, McNeil said the grade of the concrete pad outside the enclosure resulted in water washing across the floor, preventing the market from operating in the winter.
“In the middle of this month, we’ll be getting some farmers,” McNeil promised. “It hasn’t really gotten started because the produce is slow.”
While the tables are bare at the Liberty Street Market, two Saturday morning markets — Cobblestone Farmers Market at Old Salem and the Dixie Classic Farmers Market at the city-owned fairgrounds on the north side — bustle with visitors and fresh produce provided by farmers from the surrounding countryside.
At least a dozen produce vendors were on hand at the Dixie Classic Farmers Market around noon on May 2, while many others were packing up. Notwithstanding statements by representatives of the Liberty Street Market and the city of Winston-Salem that the growing season is getting off to a slow start, there was no shortage of foodstuffs for sale at the Dixie Classic Farmers Market, including cantaloupe, watermelon, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and pork, goat-milk soap, beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, eggs, onions and locally roasted coffee.
Marva Reid, president of the East/Northeast Winston Neighborhood Association, expressed dismay about the lack of progress at the Liberty Street Market. Reid, who has hosted National Night Out gatherings and informal markets on 14th Street, said she doesn’t think Miller has done adequate outreach in the community. Reid added that she’s not inclined to help Miller.
“She needs to get out and talk to the people,” Reid said. “I’m upset with her because she’s paid to do this. She needs to do more advertisement. There’s beauty shops. She could do a survey: ‘What would you like to see?’ It’s poor management, plan and simple.”
Miller has not returned messages via phone, email and Facebook for the past two weeks.
Mary Jac Brennan, an agent with the Forsyth County Extension Center, said the Liberty Street Market might be more successful with different hours.
“The hours have not been real regular,” she said. “It’s competing for the same hours with other markets. If you could be open in the evening when people are coming home from work, that might work out better.”
Brennan met with Miller to discuss the possibility of finding community gardeners who might be interested in vending produce at the market. She said she’s working with a group that could be read to sell sometime this summer.
It’s a tough proposition to recruit farmers from other markets, where they already have a strong customer base.
“Farmers need to make money,” Brennan said. “Their time away from farming is precious. They need to see a bang for their buck.”
The market also needs support from the community, she said.
“There’s definitely interest,” Brennan said. “I’d like to see some organization of supporters to make it successful.”