Suhm Talks Farmers Market Figures and Why It Really Needs to Go Private By Fiscal Year's End
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As promised, I spoke with City Manager Mary Suhm. I asked her, straight off: Did the Dallas Farmers Market in fact lose $800,000 during the fiscal year that ended, like, yesterday? Her answer: "It's the end of the fiscal year. We don't have that data yet."
That said, Suhm readily acknowledges: "This operation hasn't made money ever." And it seldom meets projected revenues. As in: The FY2006-07 budget projected a loss of around $182,000. When the books were closed, the market lost $755,362. And that was a good year: In 07-08 it lost $843,915; the next year, $956,547, after Suhm had projected a loss of $501,000 in the council-approved budget.
The $803,443 to which Channel 8 referred last night? That's right there in the request for proposals under the guesstimated losses for FY2009-10.
"We'd like to lose as little as we can," Suhm says, "and some years we miss projections, and some years we're right on." In FY2005-06, a projected loss of $328,000 was more or less spot-on. Those losses, she says, come out of the Dallas Convention Center's enterprise fund: "At the end of the year, it has to come out zero or have the money rolled forward. There can't be a loss." For reasons no one at City Hall can quite explain, the market falls under the convention center's auspices.
As for what accounts for the wide margins between projections and reality: "We don't make enough revenue to cover expenses, and the revenues are the rents we charge the vendors," she says. "The market has always been in a hole."
Which is why, as we first mentioned exactly three months ago, Suhm is hoping to privatize the Dallas Farmers Market: "I want to give it to someone else and see if they cando it without losing money." Simple as that.
Only, not so easy: Initially RFPs were due to the city a week ago. There were a few meetings with some interested parties, prompting several addenda to the bid documents. But the city didn't get a single viable bid, and so the deadline was extended to October 20. Suhm tells Unfair Park she expects that deadline will be extended yet again.
"If people are telling me they can give me a better offer if I give them more time, I will give them more time," she says. "Not two years, but time. But I want to get this done during this fiscal year. That's getting all the bids in, ranking them, developing a new contract. I need a full year to do that."
The city wants out for a number of reasons. The revenue's but one. There's also the issue of politics -- as in, whenever there's talk of raising vendors' rents, someone from the market will go to someone at the convention center to complain, and soon enough that whine will be poured out at City Hall. Politics, insists many on Marilla, are interfering with the city's ability to run a business. Suhm would agree.
"You can't run a business with one piece objecting to change," she says. "It's a tough operation to run, and there has not been any intention to make money. ... It's hard to run things in the public sector -- there are lots of bottoms lines and lots of people to answer to. I like it, which is why I do it." She laughs. "It's a challenge. But I am hoping for something creative and wonderful" for the market, which is why she's willing to delay proposals once more.
And she's aware: Interested parties will have to deal with their own set of challenges, chief among them the fact there's no money to make significant improvements to the market. The city already spent $3.2 million to overhaul Shed 2, and aside from some drainage dough capital improvements, if necessary, will have to be handled by whoever comes into operate the place.
On the one hand that's a significant roadblock for a would-be operator. Then again ...
Far as Suhm figures it, eliminating City Hall from the equation at the market will give an outside operator the freedom to move without the hindrance of political kvetching. If someone can come in and show that damn right they're gonna make money, then the city's willing to let them run the market the way it ought to be run -- as a business, nothing more and nothing less. That is, if the city council signs off on the deal
"I may not get it done," she says. "If someone has a proposal for it and says, 'We don't want to hire any of your people,' which is the opposite of what happened with the zoo, that's one hurdle. Of if they want to raise the rent or run off all the resellers, I don't know if council will agree to it. I have no idea what council will agree to."
This much she does know: The city isn't going to move the Dallas Farmers Market. And, contrary to rumors that have been floating amongst the shed-dwellers for more than a year, she says she's never heard of a proposal that would call for selling at least some of the property in order to make room for a multi-use development build on the land.
That said, she says: "Maybe a proposal will mention that. It's wide-open. Use your imagination."