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Cleveland's West Side Market vendors are open to new management, but cautious about the future

Customers inspect a pastry display at the West Side Market.
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
Customers inspect a pastry display at the West Side Market. Mayor Justin Bibb is proposing to form a new nonprofit to take over management of the facility.

Vendors at the West Side Market say they’re open to change at the 110-year-old Ohio City destination, though they are waiting for more details on what a switch to nonprofit management will mean for their businesses.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb on Thursday said he intends to form a new, independent entity to run the market’s day-to-day operations, while retaining city ownership of the historic venue.

“It’s got to be better than where we’re at right now,” said Liz Lance, the owner of Lance’s Beef. “We’re going nowhere. Hopefully it will help the market. That’s what we need.”

Lance credited Bibb with turning the city’s attention to the market, though she said this week’s announcement took her by surprise. She – and other vendors – said the city had fallen behind on maintenance of the century-old structure.

Nonprofit management would free the market and its vendors from the city bureaucracy, where requests for plumbing fixes can take weeks to fulfill, according to Don Whitaker of D.W. Whitaker Meats.

Whitaker, the president of the market’s tenants’ association, has advocated for a nonprofit to take over management.

“We want to have more of a day-to-day management. It’s not that they’re doing a bad job,” he said of the city. “It’s just, it’s a big machine, and we’d like not to be part of that machine.”

Understaffing had left the city behind on maintenance at the market, said Beth Bowman, the owner of Vera’s Bakery. While she had heard that nonprofit management was a possibility, she hadn’t expected Bibb’s announcement this week.

“Anything going in the positive, right direction, we’re kind of okay with,” she said. “I guess it’s kind of a wait-and-see attitude with most things that happen around here, so fingers crossed.”

Bibb raised the subject of new management when he met with vendors shortly after taking office in January, according to Nina Morad, who owns Meister Food.

In the past, city leadership didn’t meet vendors’ needs, from the building itself to marketing, Morad said. Still, she said she is withholding judgement on Bibb’s nonprofit model.

“I don’t know if it would be better,” she said. “I’m waiting to hear, to see what’s going to happen. Like them to lay it all out, tell us what’s going on. I’m not making any judgements before I know things.”

It will take time to conduct a master plan and establish a new nonprofit entity. Cleveland City Council has not yet taken up any legislation approving a switch to new management.

Council President Blaine Griffin told Ideastream Public Media that he is “cautiously optimistic” about Bibb’s proposal.

“I do believe that we should have a structure in place in order to better run and better manage the West Side Market, but the devil’s in the details,” Griffin said. “I want to make sure that we’re just not divesting our city assets.”

The council president said he wanted to ensure that the city maintains site control and decision-making powers at the market. But the idea of an independent manager – which Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack has also advocated – has “a lot of validity,” Griffin said.

“One of the things that we need with the West Side Market is somebody to just, full time, all day, every day, think about nothing but the West Side Market,” he said. “But then they’re also going to have to raise some significant resources outside of the city, and they’re going to need to be very nimble to do that.”

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.