Flea Market on hold following complaints of competition

11/15/2012

A small group of Point Reyes Station residents concerned about a flea market that has begun appearing regularly in the center of town turned a community meeting late last week into a debate over whether such a recurring commercial activity befits a public gathering space.

The discussion, led by more than a handful of concerned local residents and shopkeepers at the monthly meeting of the Point Reyes Station Village Association, led planners to cancel a market that was scheduled for this weekend.

Critics say the market, which draws half a dozen merchants from across the county, contradicts the purpose of the lot, which is leased by West Marin Commons, said Josh Luftig, vice president of the village association. Some locals at the meeting complained that access to the lot was “encroached upon by the flea market,” Mr. Luftig said.

West Marin Commons, a community group whose mission is to “establish, preserve, and enhance both common spaces and the life that occurs in them,” according to its website, acquired a long-term lease of the lot, which is owned by a Tiburon resident, with help from the West Marin Fund in 2011.

The Commons’ steering committee hoped to preserve the lot as an “outdoor gathering place that is open to anybody” and has allowed social and entertainment activities there, like musical performances and art exhibitions, Elizabeth Barnet, co-founder and current director of the group, said.

West Marin Commons is a “self-governing” project of On the Commons, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that sponsors community development groups across the country and abroad. It uses donations to help pay for monthly rental fees, and rents out the downtown lot and the small yellow building on the property for $35 to $50.

Prospective users must fill out an application and follow certain safety precautions and guidelines that include displaying a sign during the activity and cleaning up the lot. Applications are available online.

Ms. Barnet and others with the Commons see the lot as something of an “experiment” to determine which activities are welcomed by local residents.

“In my view, it’s great that we’re providing that space,” said Ms. Barnet, who stressed that “nothing is permanent there,” including the flea market.

Flea markets in the past at other locations in and around town, such as the Green Barn and Love Field, were not a source of contention. 

Lee Flynn, whose shop, Viewpoints, adjoins the lot, cast the market as a “strictly commercial” activity that “occupies a very important, and usually a very large, portion” of a public space used on weekends by many locals to rendezvous with friends and family. She did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

But Elizabeth Whitney, a longtime local who occasionally sells her Native American and Southwestern-style jewelry at the market, said the venue offers a glimpse into local culture.

“If anyone’s ever traveled… my God, this is everywhere, this idea of a flea market,” she said. “Flea markets, for a lot of people, are like treasure hunts.”

Opposition began to mount after the market, which was initially offered late this summer as a one-time affair, grew into a regularly scheduled event. Last month, vendors from across West Marin and outlying areas like San Rafael and Fairfax turned out at four scheduled
markets.

Mark Switzer, a member of both the village association and the Commons who schedules the markets, declined to comment about the reason for increased scheduling.

Carole Alter of Woodacre, who helps organize the flea market, acknowledged some local residents and business owners may take issue with the regularity of such an activity. “I can see how, in a little small town, it could have a big impact on a little street,” she said.

But Ms. Alter, a craftswoman who used to sell her paintings and jewelry at galleries before the economic recession hobbled discretionary spending, also views the market as a means of supporting other artists “who are struggling right now to get a little more money in to survive.” She occasionally sells her work at the market, which typically features a range of artisan jewelry and antiques.

Still, some critics contend those vendors, some of whom do not pay local sales taxes, might undercut sales by local businesses and established crafts fairs.

Mr. Luftig pointed to the decades-old Dance Palace Holiday Crafts Fair coming up at the end of the month, on which he said a lot of local vendor’s livelihoods
depend.

Community organizers might need to consider certain zoning restrictions for the lot, Michael Mery, a member of the village association, suggested. “Inevitably,” he said, “there will be concerns about what is an appropriate level of use.”

The association plans to meet with members of the Commons and the West Marin Chamber of Commerce in the coming months to “begin a conversation” about how to manage the lot and other areas around Point Reyes Station, Ken Otter, president of the village association, said.

“I truly can see the merit in a flea market,” Mr. Otter said. “But it might look like a rummage sale to some.”