Food & DrinkThe Locavore

Vendors and Residents Fight to Save the West Broad Market Garden

The West Broad Farmers Market opened for its third year on Apr. 30 in the yard of the historic old West Broad Street School. Three rows of vendor tables stretched end-to-end along the blacktop, with a few tables capping each row.

It was the biggest market yet in terms of the number of vendors, said Rebecca Ennis, who manages the market and community garden for the Athens Land Trust. “Last year, all the tables fit in the courtyard.”

The weather was warm and breezy at 9 a.m. when the gates opened, and by 10 a.m., the market was in full swing. A growing crowd of visitors maneuvered to tables full of veggies, prepared foods and handmade crafts. Ennis and other garden volunteers manned a table selling the vegetables grown only a few yards away in the half-acre community garden.

“During market season, I would say I get 80 percent of my food from here,” said Lou Kregel, a Hancock Corridor resident and market frequenter. She was excited to see more vendors taking part this year and hopes the market’s popularity will grow as word spreads.

But no one is sure what next year’s opening will look like. At the moment, the Clarke County School District has plans to renovate the West Broad School into administrative offices and pave over the community garden to create an adjacent parking lot. The plan would move the garden across the street to a space that is currently paved and about a third of the size.

On Apr. 21, about 20 community members and garden supporters attended a school board meeting to express their concerns over the district’s plan. Residents urged the board to visit the garden and market, if they’d never been, to understand what the plans are threatening.

“It’s just a cool vibe here,” said Ennis. Beyond providing affordable produce to the neighborhood, the market is an incubator for entrepreneurs. “We give a small-business class to all of our vendors,” she said. “They use the market as kind of a launching pad for their business.”

The market supports the community in more subtle ways, too. Tables offering free blood pressure screenings or information about breastfeeding are peppered among other vendor tables. The picnic tables scattered along the lawn offer a place for friends to sit and visit. Many visitors on Saturday lingered well past the time they finished shopping. “It’s the neighborhood’s market,” said Kregel. “It’s really changed the feel to the people who live in it.”

Ethel Collins, who has become the de facto flag-bearer of the West Broad garden and market, is afraid that crime and drug trafficking might return if the garden is moved. “This market is bringing something positive to this neighborhood,” she said. “If you don’t have something positive going on and alive and visible, all this nonsense is going to come back up in here.”

Decton Hylton lives in Oglethorpe County, but he sells his organic produce at the market and teaches beekeeping and composting. He prefers the West Broad market to any others in Athens because “this market is grassroots, local… I feel like I’m at home.”

After so much input from the community and supporters, Hylton feels that the CCSD proposal is pulling the rug out from under the neighborhood. “This place was abandoned. No one was interested in it, and now as soon as we bring life into it, they want to take it,” he said.

Like Kregel, Hylton believes that if more Athenians visit the West Broad market, it will thrive. Visitors outside of the neighborhood “support us,” he said, “because our product is good.”

Those who helped the market get to its third opening day expressed the same wish, that they want more people to come to the market and experience it for themselves. Kregel is sure that once they do that, people will come back. “It’s something you want to support,” she said.

The West Broad Farmers Market is open every Saturday from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. through Dec. 10.