City of Cleveland officials on Friday refuted allegations by Ward 3 council member Kerry McCormack that Mayor Frank Jackson blocked West Side Market consultant David O’Neil from suggesting an independent operator could help revive the beloved, beleaguered public market. The draft consultant report is incomplete and lacks an implementation plan, they said.
Chief operating officer Darnell Brown said that it was never part of the consultant’s scope of work to look at who manages the market. Instead, the focus of the report is on providing a roadmap for securing the market’s future regardless of who runs it. He said city officials did not want the study process to become a political football during the recent mayoral election.
“Tell us how to do it, not who should own it,” said Brown. “When you boil it all down, what we wanted was an objective review of the market. We wanted the things that are appropriate to build a best-in-class facility for the community, and at all costs we wanted to stay away from the politics of the situation. We wanted to leave a blueprint for the path forward that could be successful in other environments.”
Brown and deputy chief of operations Terrell Cole said there are other unfinished items in the draft report, which contains a bevy of recommendations but no implementation plan. O’Neil did not interview city facilities staff about the process for making repairs and improvements to the market or request data about repairs, such as how long it took for different types of repairs. Instead, Cole and Brown said, he relied largely on interviews with market hall vendors.
“We’re not refuting or not accepting recommendations, we’re talking about a level of detail so that all stakeholders can understand where we are today,” said Cole. “It’s no secret that the relationship between the city and vendors needs to be repaired and improved. We wanted to make sure that the document had a real accounting of the situation.”
“You can’t just say, ‘Get it done,’” he added. “We’re looking for, how do we get it done and make sure it’s sustainable in the long-term?”
O’Neil did not respond to an email and phone call requesting comment for this story.
Morgan Taggart, director of the FARE (Food Access Raises Everyone) Project, which was a subconsultant on the study, agreed that the report is incomplete and said the question of who should manage the market in the long-term simply wasn’t part of the study in the first place.
“For this project, the City asked for an assessment and detailed action plan for the Market’s operations that included a detailed focus on day-to-day maintenance practices and clear, measurable ways to assess vendor performance and customer experience,” Taggart said in a statement. “They wanted to establish a shared, objective understanding of the Market’s operations and develop a set of tools to evaluate improvement that would provide a path forward with transparency and accountability between the city, vendors, and other key stakeholders. An assessment, recommendations and a plan for a new management structure were never in the scope of work.”
“From FARE’s perspective, the report is not final because the process itself has not been completed,” she added. “Our path forward to finish this report and honor our process is now unclear.”
“This broken partnership plays out in the media”
Market vendors and community leaders have been frustrated for years with the slow progress of change at market. They’ve complained that the city has been slow to make repairs and capital improvements such as upgrading the plumbing and electrical systems. Other hot-button management issues include tenant recruitment, marketing and leasing. Oftentimes, the frustration of vendors, council member Kerry McCormack, and community leaders has played out in the media.
O’Neil’s draft report notes, “During conversations and interviews with community members it became clear that as this broken partnership plays out in the media, it casts a pall over the market that discourages people from coming to and shopping at the market.”
The recent Cleveland.com story with the headline, “Mayor Frank Jackson blocked consultant from suggesting independent operator could revive West Side Market, councilman says,” illustrated this trend. The draft report was somehow leaked to the media after it was provided to mayor-elect Justin Bibb’s transition team.
According to a statement from his team, Bibb is planning to move ahead with independent management of the market, something current Mayor Frank Jackson steadfastly refused. Bibb said his transition team is “preparing recommendations to implement an independent model, whereby the city maintains ownership and engages an independent operator.”
For years, McCormack and other neighborhood leaders, including some vendors and the nonprofit Ohio City Incorporated (OCI), have pushed for nonprofit or independent management of the market. They complained that the city has not addressed critical repairs and capital needs in a timely way, causing tenants to leave. They’ve also complained about other issues, such as marketing and leasing restrictions.
In the recent Cleveland.com story, McCormack told reporter Courtney Astolfi that the unfinished report “speaks the truth in many ways” and “highlights the incredible mismanagement” of the market under Jackson.
McCormack told The Land in an email that he didn’t know if studying alternative management models was part of the consultant’s scope of work, but said he’d discussed it with the mayor and presented a plan for independent management. “The question of how and by who the market should be managed was absolutely a part of the conversations I had with the mayor and was a part of the *stated* intent of the consultant in those meetings,” he wrote. “Whether the Mayor never really intended on studying alternative market management models, or whether the administration did not include that in the scope with the consultant, I can’t speak to. However, if that is the case, it’s contrary to the conversations I and others had directly with the mayor about the intent of the consultant.”
The report characterizes the West Side Market as in a state of “crisis.” It has lost several high-profile tenants in recent years and is now facing its highest vacancy rate ever, especially in the produce arcade. To help hard-hit tenants during the pandemic, the city implemented contactless curbside pickup and deferred and ultimately forgave three months of rent.
Brown and Cole said the process, which was begun in 2019 before the pandemic, was an opportunity to bring everyone together under a shared plan. They described well-attended community meetings and the Mayor’s Office of Capital Projects sitting down with vendors to go through the capital improvements plan the city approved in May. Cleveland is getting ready to spend $15 million on masonry repairs, a lighting system upgrade to the market’s tower, improvements to the meat prep area, and enhanced vendor booths, among other items.
Brown complained the city cannot effectively move forward without changes to the report. “What we asked for is a roadmap,” he said. “We’re still owed that implementation strategy.”
After the eighth draft, still incomplete
O’Neil’s report is labeled “Draft – D8” because the city and O’Neil have been in conversations about the report for months. The first draft of the report was submitted in August. However, despite the amount of time that has lapsed, city officials say the report is still subpar and does not meet the objectives outlined in the original RFP.
After the Cleveland.com story came out, the city released a Dec. 4 letter stating that it was owed several outstanding items from the consultant. O’Neil undertook the market study with local partner Food Access Raises Everyone (FARE), costing the city about $137,000.
“The city has not received the level of quality and service we expected for this project,” the letter states. “While the city is more than willing to accept criticism regarding the West Side Market, it is imperative the findings and recommendations are based on a substantive and factual assessment of performance and not simply on the sentiments and opinions of stakeholders.”
Specifically, the city is asking for:
A tool for evaluating vendor performance and selection.
A review of how the new West Side Market capital plan will impact how customers access products, services, and events.
Tools to measure customer satisfaction at the market.
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O’Neil’s report contains over 200 recommendations but no implementation plan, which Cole and Brown said is unacceptable. O’Neil interviewed market vendors inside the market hall, but did not interview produce vendors, they said. He also did not interview facilities staff or obtain information about repairs.
“We got a list of comments on the maintenance side that it takes too long for work orders to get resolved,” said Brown. “Well, what does that mean? If you say, ‘It took this long, but it should have taken this long,’ then that’s specific. That’s focused on how to enhance the performance of the market. We got none of that.”
Cleveland.com posted the draft report online. A review of the document shows that the section marked “Action Plan” is 11 pages long and contains about 20 recommendations. It does not prioritize them, offer an implementation strategy, or provide more than cursory cost information. By way of comparison, a recent report by GTE Environmental on the city’s waste and recycling programs contained more than 30 pages of recommendations. Taggart pointed to a recent plan for Washington DC’s Eastern Market that is more in line with what the city was expecting.
Latoya Hunter, the city’s director of communications, said in an email that O’Neil had responded to the Dec. 4 letter that the report was “complete in his opinion. He does not agree the implementation strategy/action plan is in scope.” O’Neil has been paid $131,000 of the $137,000 contract so far. Chief Brown has “emailed and called Mr. O’Neil and did not receive a response.”
Taggart said the city and partners can’t wrap up the process because the study isn’t complete. “Once the report was final, the findings and recommendations were going to be shared through a final set of meetings and discussions with the city, the vendors and the West Side Market Friends and Stakeholders, a diverse group of partners that was created during this planning process to provide feedback and build support for the assessment and plan,” she said.
“What we received is a repositioning of criticisms of the city and accepting them as fact without validation,” said Cole. “We wanted to make sure the document has a real accounting. It should be holding a mirror up to all parties. Everyone has a role with the West Side Market and how it can be strengthened.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect comments by Ward 3 council member Kerry McCormack.
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.