The COVID-19 pandemic brought wholesale changes to the Oak Park Farmers Market in 2020 and now commissioners and village staff are approaching the 2021 season as a transitional year for the 46-year-old producer-only market.
“Our goal is to have the full market season,” said Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park village manager. “The only thing that would cloud that would be a COVID curveball. And we don’t anticipate that happening.” The plan is also to return the market to its location in the parking lot at Pilgrim Church on Lake Street.
Farmers Market commission members expressed concerns during a Feb. 23 meeting about the departure of veteran market manager Colleen McNichols and worried that outreach to long time farm vendors was behind schedule.
“I hope there is an active search going,” said Laura Lencioni, chair of the commission to Wednesday Journal. “We need an experienced market manager, and I am hopeful the village will get someone on board as soon as possible.”
McNichols declined to interview for her part time role overseeing the farmers market in the 2021 season according to village staff. The staffing void concerned farmers market commissioners who expressed worry there would be a lack of leadership continuity as the market prepares for the upcoming season.
McNichols served as market manager for four years. According to commissioners she was typically hired in January. Though McNichol’s decision not to return may have been unexpected, to date no new hire has been made suggesting the process is five-to-six weeks behind schedule.
Arti Walker-Peddakotla, village trustee and board liaison to the farmers market commission, expressed concern over McNichols departure during the Feb. 23 commission meeting saying McNichols “held a wealth of knowledge” related to vendor relationships and hoped they would work together “to stem any losses” that come as result of her departure.
Cameron Davis, assistant director of development customer services and staff liaison to the farmers market commission, learned McNichol’s was not returning as market manager on Feb. 23 according to a statement made during the farmers market commission meeting.
“We are a little behind the curve right now,” said Pavlicek, about hiring a market manager. “But we are in the process of looking at all our options. We need additional staff resources for the market, and everything is on the table.”
When asked if hiring from within was under consideration, Pavlicek reiterated, “everything is on the table.”
Pavlicek has been primarily focused on hiring a new Public Health Director since Mike Charley left the position in November. Charley also served as staff liaison to the farmers market for more than 15 years. When COVID hit, Davis took over for Charley as market liaison and oversaw the successful modified market in 2020.
Pavlicek anticipates, once hired, the new market manager will work closely with Davis to ensure they have appropriate support and an understanding of how the market operated last year. While Davis hopes for a quick on-boarding of a new market manager things are moving forward. The village has paid the dues owed to the Illinois Farmers Market Association and Davis confirmed the village has been in communication with farmers and will send out vendor applications in the coming days.
“We have stable vendors who have been with us for years,” said Davis. “After pulling together last year’s market from scratch, I am completely comfortable with the timeline we are working with for the 2021 market.”
Though Pavlicek was quick to say “we are not back to business as usual” she indicated it was a priority to return the market to the Pilgrim Church parking lot and place vendors in their regular locations on market days.
“If I know anything, I know we shouldn’t mess with where the vendors are located,” said Pavlicek.
Davis is currently working with Joseph T. Terry, interim health director, to draw up an ordinance naming the Pilgrim lot as the official location for the 2021 season. Pavlicek and Davis expect the decision to be finalized by the beginning of April.
“If our vaccinations are far enough along and community spread is low enough, I would also love to bring back some of the special programs, like live music, to the market,” said Pavlicek.
The popular pre-ordering program through What’s Good established in 2020 will continue in 2021. Davis relayed the intention to make the aggregation program cost neutral by adding a three-dollar fee to each order to cover the costs of tents, storage units and coolers.
Barring any challenges, the 2021 Market season will run from Saturday, May 22 through the last Saturday in October.