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Karen Ellis

To market, to market


More than 20 years ago, when Karen Ellis was still dreaming about creating a downtown Boise market, she called Barry Benepe--co-founder of New York City's Greenmarket--the very model of the modern major farmers market.

"He made a comment to me that I'll never forget," remembered Ellis. "He said, 'If there was not a market, people might not know there were seasons.'"

Only six months ago, Ellis thought she might not ever have another market season, in the wake of her firing as director of Boise's Capital City Public Market, which she helped create in the early 1990s. Indeed, Ellis' dream had turned into a nightmare, when CCPM's board voted to show her the door, citing a lack of confidence in her ability to manage the seasonal operation, which by then had grown to 179 vendors.

"But it's a new season for all of us," Ellis told Boise Weekly, referring to her new role as director of the newly launched Boise Farmers Market, which celebrated its debut at a separate downtown location April 6 with some familiar faces. BW talked to Ellis about last year's behind-closed-doors melodrama and this year's open-air dual marketplaces.

In your 18 years with Capital City Public Market, what was the best of it?

Each year got better. We grew 20 percent each year from day one.

Did you have a vendor formula that required a certain number of farmers versus artisans?

The guidelines stated that we should be 75 percent agriculture. However, it became clear that if the market was going to exist, we weren't going to be able to maintain that. Ultimately, we were probably about 40 percent agriculture and 60 percent art and food. But one of our anchors, [Meadowlark Farm owner] Janie Burns, used to always tell me, "It's a sad situation when we have 17,000 people at the market each Saturday, yet produce was going back home with the farmers. "

But the market continued to grow at a pretty dramatic rate. Are you saying that it was a victim of its own success?

Yes, people have told me that before. A lot of people who wanted to come down to the market for their food shopping didn't necessarily want to come into a festival atmosphere.

How bad was 2012 for you personally?

Devastating. Three years ago, both my sister and sister-in-law were diagnosed with cancer. The next year, my husband was diagnosed with cancer. That probably kept me not as focused as I should have been. And then, over the last year, there were so many layers of complexity and personal hidden agendas.

Did you see your dismissal coming?

I didn't. I thought we would get a mediator, but I was blindsided. I focused on my family's health. I didn't let the market go, but I trusted people. It started with a situation that's not uncommon with a lot of other markets: trying to prove that everybody was growing the produce that they were selling.

Are you saying that merchants were buying product from retail sources and reselling it?

Yes. When we first started out--we had about 12 vendors--we had a caveat that 75 percent had to be grown by the vendor. They were allowed to bring no more than 25 percent annually from another source, as long as it was from another local grower and they had a sign indicating as such. One day, I found out somebody wasn't growing their own asparagus. That was the catalyst of our discovery of the problem.

But why wouldn't the majority of vendors be on board with local sourcing?

They were. But a handful of vendors made it uncomfortable and drew in a lot of others, so a lot of vendors became embroiled in the issue. We wanted to see where things were grown, but some vendors interpreted that all wrong.

Was that a catalyst for last year's bad blood?

It got to a level that was out of hand. It's sad to spend 18 years of your life, time and money and not be around for the 20th anniversary.

Who approached whom to create a new market?

It was about this time last year when some of the vendors said it was becoming clear that CCPM was trying to get rid of me. It got worse and worse. Some of the vendors considered a lawsuit, but realized it would cost a lot of money. They said they wouldn't throw good money after bad and instead decided to start a new market. I hadn't talked to any of them at the time.

So when did you enter the conversation?

They came to me in late October [Ellis was fired in September]. One of the vendors, Ed Wilsey [Homestead Natural Foods], said, "If you don't help us start a new market, I won't be in downtown Boise anymore. We're not going back to CCPM."

And how was the city of Boise treating all of this?

They clearly didn't want us to start a new market. City officials told the vendors to kiss and make up with CCPM. But that wasn't going to happen. The city also asked the vendors to pick a different day or location. The vendors even asked the Downtown Boise Association and the Capital City Development Corporation to divide the current lease so that they could share space with CCPM. But CCDC said no.

But nothing was keeping you from placing a market on private property.

Exactly. We drove around and found the lot at 11th and Front streets, owned by Republic Parking. We called the owner and negotiated a deal.

Republic Parking is your landlord?

That's right. We're renting half of the lot.

Will you have enough space?

There's room for about 70, and right now we're up to 55 vendors.

Such as?

Meadowlark Farm, Purple Sage Farms, Riverview Gardens, Homestead Ranch, Rice Family Farms, Peaceful Belly.

Those are familiar names from CCPM. Will some merchants be at both markets?

Some, but not all. You know, the city of Boise should be thrilled. It's like having two anchor tenants and it helps develop that whole corridor.

What do you say to those who question two Saturday markets in downtown Boise?

I don't think anything dramatic happened when Whole Foods opened a block away from Winco. Trader Joe's will be two blocks further down [Front Street]. Think about it; there are 11 hair salons in the downtown core, there are 10 coffee shops. Competition is good. We never look at this as competition. We look at it as filling a niche that was lost in the growth of CCPM.

You've decided to open a half-hour earlier than CCPM.

9 a.m. That means I'll have to be down there by 5:30 a.m. for setup.

Will you ring a bell to start up each Saturday?

Oh yes, but it's much more than ringing a bell. It's exciting and I'm overwhelmed by the support.

Next week's Citizen will be Lisa Duplessie, Executive Director of the Capital City Public Market which opens Saturday, April 20.