Dear school board members,
I'm writing to you, Dr. Lanoue, the local papers and the Athens Land Trust about the future of the West Broad Farmers Market and Garden. As I'm sure you're aware, the West Broad Farmers Market and Garden is a half-acre market garden that provides affordable, pesticide-free produce for the community and income for community members on the grounds of the old West Broad School, a historic African American school located on the main street of Athens.
But you may not understand how important this place is to me. I'm a vendor there, selling homemade baked goods. When I bring my granddaughter to assist me, she learns about setup, presentation, customer service, being on time and, as a cashier, how to take care of money. One of the best parts is the ride home when we pull out the free sample box, laugh, talk and eat our favorite cookies. I helped to build the market and garden, and my sweat, that of my fellow vendors and so many people in Athens-Clarke County and beyond is on the grounds from planting vegetables, flowers, groundskeeping and digging up weeds in the garden.
You may not understand how important this place is to the people who live all around it. This place is a success story for them. This is a place where neighborhood folks built something real and invested hope and effort. This place is loved. If the school district is going to replace the West Broad Farmers Market and Garden with administrative offices, you should have a clear idea of what you're displacing. Then you can weigh and balance your choices more truthfully. This is what happens in the market garden where it is now, where it's been for four years:
• Neighborhood people can get fresh produce and locally cooked food there from the last Saturday in April through the second Saturday in December.
• Anywhere from 40–50 people can earn experience and money as vendors at the market every year. This includes first-time vendors and youth.
• Hundreds and hundreds of people from the neighborhood, from all over Athens and surrounding counties come to the market and spend money in this neighborhood right there on West Broad because it’s an easy place to find.
• People show up every weekend, bringing their children, having playdates, for fellowship, to have lunch, meet friends, relax and have fun.
• Many of my customers who have never had contact with people in the community enjoy the rich and rewarding experience of hearing about when the school and garden came to the community and learning some of its history firsthand.
• Health screenings are offered, and information booths are set up with materials on housing, taxes, jobs, schools, how to grow your own vegetables, how to start your own business, etc.
• The garden has hosted more than 2,500 Clarke County School District students for field trips.
• Volunteers have spent have spent more than 7,500 hours at the garden, which the IRS values as an investment worth more than $135,000 to the community.
Did you know before this market came, the old school building had been vandalized? Did you know there were drug deals happening on the corners—Paris Street, on Minor Street? Now there aren't. The vandalism has stopped. The 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.
Did you know how much money this market has drawn to the neighborhood? If you count up private and federal government grants for the West Broad Farmers Market and the wages earned from the market, there has been more than $1 million brought into the community. If you add in various investments from the Athens Land Trust in neighborhood revitalization in the immediate area, another $1.5 million, this market stands at the center of a nearly $3 million economic impact.
So the points I'm making are: People care about this market, about this place. Neighborhood people care, and so do people from all over Athens. The environmentalists are in awe of the environmental impact of the garden, and the nutritionally minded are blown away by the healthy, chemical-free veggies and the demonstration of healthy dishes prepared from and at the garden. Everybody who comes talks about how peaceful and relaxing the atmosphere is. We've all invested in this place.
I feel there should be an open conversation with all of Athens, especially with the people in the neighborhood, about any plans to displace the market and garden. To my knowledge, people in the neighborhood have not been notified about what the school district intends to do with the West Broad site. I say this because I walked the Hancock Corridor the week before last on Wednesday and Thursday. I walked Broad Acres, across Broad in the immediate community next to and behind the market at Rocksprings Homes. Only one lady in Broad Acres had heard something on 92.7 FM on Lady B's program.
What I'd like to ask and also get answered is: What can you do to make sure the neighborhood has a voice in what happens to the school and market? When can we learn about the school district's plans other than action taken in the November and January meetings? What process will the school district set up to give the neighborhood a chance to be heard? Do you understand what it means to really grow something? From the soil and plants to the neighborhood, should something that has been invested in with so much care and success be moved so lightly?
Let's go to school for a brief history lesson. Principal Samuel Harris started the original garden on the site where the garden is now. My greatest question to the school district is: If you're going to displace the market garden, what will you bring that will give back and be an even greater asset to the neighborhood?
I look forward to hearing back from you about these concerns.