MAIN STREET — For those who make it to Main Street’s Sunday Farmers’ Market early enough to claim a spot, the lawn outside the California Heritage Museum has long been a favorite place to spread a picnic blanket and take in the scene.
But as of last month, it’s also a revenue-generating asset for the cash-strapped museum, which has begun renting the coveted real estate out to Main Street merchants during Farmers’ Market hours.
As many as six merchants have set up shop on Sunday mornings in recent weeks, selling clothing, toys and art from a prime location in front of the market’s produce and prepared food booths.
Renting the space is bringing in $1,000 per week for the museum, said Tobi Smith, the California Heritage’s executive director.
It’s also displacing market regulars and irking those who miss the lost open space.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I don’t understand it or appreciate it and I hope that they do away with it,” said Mike Bone, an Ocean Park resident who for years has spent Sunday mornings on the lawn. “It’s an incursion of commerce into public space, I think.”
Smith, though, said the decision to capitalize on the thousands of customers who flock to the popular market was simply a creative way to capture new revenue in difficult times.
Despite record attendance drawn in by the ongoing “Skateboard: Evolution and Art” exhibit, she said the museum, like many others, is bleeding money and struggling to get by.
“We’re really quite desperate, even though the current exhibition is the best show we’ve ever done, admission wise,” she said.
The roughly $50,000 per year she aims to raise by renting out the lawn would cover more than a sixth of the museum’s budget.
In the early 1990s, Smith said she received weekly rent from City Hall for market patrons’ use of the lawn, but in 1993, officials “decided that they were the big strong bully and they didn’t have to meet their commitment anymore.”
For their part, City Hall officials said it’s unclear what arrangement market organizers had with the museum nearly two decades ago.
In any case, when Smith earlier this year broached the idea of charging the city to use the lawn for the Sunday market, it failed to gain traction.
Miriam Mack, City Hall’s economic development manager, said the Farmers’ Market has financial problems of its own and has cut its $20,000 entertainment budget for the upcoming fiscal year. For the first time, musicians at the market will play for free.
Mack said that while there have been some complaints about the new use of the lawn space, “we’re really sympathetic [to] the museum’s need to be creative and find new revenue sources so they can keep their doors open.”
For the time being, she said there’s no plan to try to alter the museum’s new business model.
“I guess were just going to watch and see what the response is. Are the vendors there seeing that it’s worthwhile to them? Is it worthwhile to the museum to manage it? We’re just going to have to see what happens and what aspects of the operation need to be adjusted,” Mack said.
Jodi Low, who manages the Main Street market, said those most vocal about the change are mainly opposed to the vendors.
“It changes the feel of the market for sure,” she said, adding that if the museum stays its course with the merchants she’s afraid customers will take their business elsewhere. “I think that would be a shame if that happened,” she said.
Meanwhile, merchants are still assessing the pros and cons of the new real estate.
Cassandra Rogers, who owns Jackapotamus, a kids clothing and toy store on Main Street, has been paying $100 per week to set up a booth on the museum’s lawn. She said the location has its advantages for business because her target audience — families with small children — often gather at the front of the market but don’t venture to the back where other merchandise booths are stationed.
But she said she’s heard complaints about the vendors taking away from the market’s atmosphere, especially since an art dealer who conducts live auctions using a speaker system began renting a spot on the museum’s grounds.
“As Main Street merchants we have a responsibility to preserve the bigger picture life of the Farmers’ Market and I certainly would not want to be part of a long-term negative impact on that,” she said. “If it came to the point where people were not coming because there’s nowhere for them to sit, then I think personally it would be better to not be vending on the lawn.”