Photo by Morgan MeredithAcoupleofWednesdaysago,shortlyafterameetingwith Santa Ana city officials, Delilah Snell sat in her car and wept. City planners had just told Snell and her friends Lara Montagne and Branden Willman-Kozimor they would have to spend at least $40,000 per year in permits, security guards, port-a-potties and water barricades to see their dreams of a weekly Santa Ana farmers market approved. A parking ticket decorated her windshield.
The tears flowed; the ticket "was like salt on the wound," Snell now says. But she regained her composure and drove to the offices of the Grain Project, a nonprofit trying to start a farmers market in Santa Ana. Snell and Montagne then did what they've done for the past three years: called people. Friends. The planning commission. Council members. People they met once.
Those people called more people. And they called more people. In that network of calls, someone must have reached the right person because about five days after Snell's crying jag, Santa Ana planners called the Grain Project with shocking news: the $40,000 was now reduced to maybe $5,000. And they could begin hosting the farmers market in May—in downtown.
The drastic drop in fees and tentative approval might signify the end of a protracted, bizarre three-year struggle between the city of Santa Ana and the Grain Project. Seventeen cities in Orange County host weekly farmers markets, and Santa Ana would seem like a natural choice for 18th given its residents overwhelmingly hail from Latin America, where open-air markets are a millennia-old tradition. But all that Snell and her friends encountered from city officials until recently was stonewalling, excuses and more stonewalling.
The problems started three years ago, when Montagne, Snell and Willman-Kozimor worked at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana. The three approached the city with a plan. They wanted to host a farmers market in the Artists Village to increase foot traffic in the beautiful-but-moribund area. "You have thousands of people working in Santa Ana, but they only stay inside their offices," says Snell. "Or they visit every first Saturday for the art exhibits. So we wanted to create something that would attract everyone: children, artists, seniors. Bring in a lot of smiling and laughing."
But planners with Santa Ana's downtown-development department scuttled the proposal, telling the women that a farmers market wasn't part of the city's "vision" for the Artists Village. "They thought it would be like a swap meet or flea market," says Montagne. To erase those fears, Montagne and Snell drove some of the city's higher-level officials to other county farmers markets to prove to skeptics such bazaars weren't scuzzy.
"In Fullerton, they remodeled their museum district around the idea of a farmers market," says Snell. "Irvine has the largest farmers market—and they don't even allow you to paint your house a different color!"
City officials still weren't convinced. When the three proposed locations other than the Artists Village—in Birch Park, on private property, on a lightly traveled street—Santa Ana planners simply shuffled them to other planners. Snell says planners bounced them from agency to agency until "we felt like a pinball." The city was so disorganized in dealing with the group that one agency rewarded them with a $500 grant for a farmers market even though another wouldn't approve it.
Nonplussed, Montagne, Snell and Willman-Kozimor set up a website, created the nonprofit Grain Project and began fund-raising (a wine-tasting dinner last September brought in $7,000). And they enlisted the help of Santa Ana's powerful neighborhood associations, whose members wrote letters of support to various city officials, made multiple phone calls and delivered gentle admonishments at restaurants.
The mounting community support finally got the city to bless the Grain Project. The agreement between Santa Ana and the Grain Project will initially allow 18 vendors, almost all farmers from Orange County, to sell produce and flowers from a parking lot on Third and Bush. The location is in the middle of the city's Fiesta Marketplace, guaranteeing almost instant success.
"We want to make sure the list of things coming in is not only vibrant, but also interesting," said Dave Ream, Santa Ana's city manager. "I think [the Grain Project proposal] would bring an enjoyable element into the downtown. They have a good proposal."
Despite the arduous process, Snell isn't bitter. "Objectively, we didn't have a track record. We had to re-educate them on what farmers markets are about. And we had to show we'd be professional, consistent, motivated and beneficial toward the community. We did that."
Snell smiles. "Dave Ream told us, 'I gotta give you the award for persistence. You girls just don't give up!'"
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