West Side Market Vendors Again Call For Change After Weekend Power Outage

Cleveland's West Side Market building in the Ohio City neighborhood
Founded in the late 1860s, Cleveland’s West Side Market has been operating out of the Ohio City Neo-Classical/Byzantine building since 1912. [Tim Harrison / Ideastream Public Media]

Updated: 5:20 p.m., Monday, July 19, 2021

Vendors are once again calling for change at the West Side Market after a power outage Saturday brought business to a halt.

The incident is bringing renewed attention to the lack of resources, including a backup generator, in the historic building.

The outage caused problems for many vendors who lost sales and products on one of the biggest shopping days of the week and had to close down without refrigeration.

“Luckily, I have refrigeration offsite, and a refrigerated vehicle,” said DW Meats owner Don Whitaker. “We transported out of here. There’s a few guys that have done that. But not everyone has that capability.”

But even with the option to transport meat elsewhere, Whitaker said there is the financial impact of lost sales to contend with.

“It’s a real impact. It will hurt my year, it’s reality,” Whitaker said. “I want to pay all my employees for the day they came in and stuff like that.”

Cleveland Public Power (CPP) workers were at the market Monday afternoon. Some stalls were still empty, but others had resumed business as usual.

Diane Dever, who runs the “Irene Dever” dairy stand, said the power was out when workers arrived Saturday morning and was inconsistent through the day, meaning vendors couldn’t run credit cards or operate electric slicers.

“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve just learned to fend for myself because I know I’m not going to get any help or assistance from the city,” Dever said Monday. “My stuff will stay for a couple extra days compared to the guys that have fresh meat, pork and chicken. So I was very fortunate.”

Dever had a battery-operated scale and managed to keep her stall open while the power was out, relying on ice stores under the refrigerated cases to keep products cool.

But the city should do more to support vendors, she said, including having a backup power supply.

“If they would have bought a generator years ago, it would have paid for itself,” Dever said. “This isn’t the first time the power has gone off.”

Cleveland's West Side Market

The West Side Market was open for business Monday after a power outage over the weekend sent vendors and shoppers home. [Taylor Haggerty / Ideastream Public Media]

Alicia Gallagher of North Olmsted usually visits the iconic once or twice a year but remembers more frequent shopping trips there as a child.

“We would go to St. Malachi’s and then hop down over here, my sisters and I,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher was surprised to see so few vendors Monday, her first trip since before the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s more empty stalls, so I feel bad about that. I’m not sure the reason, if it was just a bad year for the vendors,” she said.

The city of Cleveland hired a consultant in February to examine the market’s efficiency and look for ways to improve. That consultant has met once already with a group of stakeholders, Whitaker said, and another meeting is coming up soon.

But any changes at the West Side Market would need to be approved by the city.

Whitaker said that so far, Mayor Frank Jackon’s administration has been unwilling to consider options for the market like changing its management to a nonprofit. And present issues like the lack of an HVAC system or a proper generator to cover electrical needs in the event of an outage are continually delayed and put off, he said.

“They just can’t admit they cannot run something. And that’s just so troublesome. If I ask for help, I need help, you know?” Whitaker said. “This is not rocket science. It just comes down to being properly managed. That’s all.”

If Cleveland wants the market to thrive, Whitaker said, impactful change is needed. Bringing in new vendors and attracting a younger demographic of vendors is difficult with things as they are, he said.

“If you want younger tenants in here, you got to have some amenities,” Whitaker said. “We’re just used to working in an 85-degree building.”

Vendor Kate’s Fish called the outage a “state of emergency,” on social media over the weekend, saying the city is incapable of running the market without “cataclysmic failures, negligence and ineptitude.”

“The tenants are powerless, the building is in desperate need of serious infrastructure repairs, small businesses and families and hard-working, tax-paying human beings that make their living here have been asking for help for years,” the longtime fishmonger at the market wrote on Instagram and Twitter. “Help has not come, things have gotten worse and worse and no help is on the way with a lame duck mayor and all his cronies on the way out.”

Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack also took to social media following the power outage, calling for change at the West Side Market and with Cleveland Public Power (CPP). Current CPP power purchasing contracts should be broken to allow for investment and shifts to green energy, he said, and the city should relinquish management of the market.

“Many peer cities across American have successfully adopted an independent management model for their markets,” McCormack said. “This requires administrative action and I hope all Mayoral candidates commit to this.”

Cleveland City Council president and mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley tweeted about additional weekend power outages in and around Cleveland, beyond West Side Market.

 

Other Cleveland mayoral candidates weighed in on the power outage and troubles at the market. Candidate Zack Reed spent time speaking with vendors about their concerns Sunday.

“The current leadership at City Hall has proven it doesn’t have the managerial skills to stop the current decline at the West Side Market,” Reed tweeted. “It’s time for new leadership at City Hall.”

Former mayor and current candidate Dennis Kucinich promised the vendors he would prioritize the installation of a generator if elected, and criticized efforts to discuss restructuring the market or hiring consultants to assess efficiency.

“We don’t need city leaders who’ve demonstrated they don’t care about the West Side Market and wannabe leaders who’ve demonstrated they don’t have a clue about the importance of this hallowed Cleveland institution,” Kucinich said. “These hard-working, committed, often struggling small business vendors need support from City Hall, and no one running for Mayor understands that better than I do.”

Ongoing debate as to who should own and operate the market continued on social media, with many calling for a nonprofit to step in and take over. But mayoral candidate Ross DiBello tweeted that wouldn’t be his plan if he is elected.

“We are going to manage it well and make it work for the public good,” DiBello said. “We will not give it to We Have Great Intentions, LLC. There are dozens of well-managed public markets across the country.”

Candidate Justin Bibb also visited the market and highlighted the need for improvements. The power outage shows a need for new leadership and direct action, he said in a video posted to social media.

“When I’m mayor, this will be an immediate priority to ensure that our residents and vendors get the leadership they deserve,” Bibb said.

The city of Cleveland did not respond to Ideastream Public Media’s request for comment for this story.

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