At the bottom of next Tuesday’s ballot is a new tax levy to fund basic structural updates to the Pike Place Market, Seattle’s original farmers market. The levy would cost the average city homeowner just $256 over six years. So how can you go wrong? It’s an investment an old Seattle landmark that stands for local food. In the grand scheme of things, the levy is a tiny bite.

But consider this. The Market occupies prime real estate and draws phenomenal foot traffic — some 10 million visitors per year. Based on those numbers you’d expect it to be a thriving business. A dynamic, self-sustaining entity. Yet the Market’s been unwilling or unable to make capital improvements to its aging facility since the 1970s, when Seattle taxpayers last upgraded it.

So now the place is in such bad shape it needs to be “saved”.

In recent years some have accused the Market of poor management. One particularly poignant example was the Market Basket program, a CSA subscription that incorporated seasonal produce from twenty-some local farms. In 2007, the CSA program lost $74,000 on 500 subscriptions. The PI reported that farmers were so upset by how the program was run that some quit outright and others threatened to picket. Program administrators blamed the farmers. The program ended that year.

So I thought I’d pay a visit and see how things felt; I needed corn and chantrelles for dinner anyway. While browsing the stalls I noted that many of the goods were truly local — jars of honey, berry jams, brilliantly colored dahlias. But a more critical survey suggested that a certain percentage of the produce had probably been grown some place warmer, like California. Sure, it all comes from a farmer. But so does the stuff at the grocery store.

And strangely, the local farmers you know and love are relegated to tables on the street, outside the main structure. Only Alvarez Farm was there on my visit, with their beautiful organic eggplants and peppers, under a tent set up next to a garbage dumpster. It wasn’t immediately clear to me how upgraded plumbing and electrical would benefit Alvarez and other struggling area farmers. Maybe a roof?

As a voter I don’t appreciate being backed into a corner and being made to feel I’m somehow at fault if we have to turn out the lights on an old Seattle landmark. And that’s a big part of why I’m still undecided on this particular ballot issue. I would love to see the Market remain a collection of small locally-owned and -operated businesses. But it concerns me that Market leadership may not work well with actual farmers. That they can’t keep the place up despite a premier commercial setting. If there weren’t a dozen other great farmers markets in neighborhoods across the city, I might feel differently. But you can buy local at plenty of other places in town, and since Prop. 1 does nothing to change the conditions under which the current problems arose, I’ve got some deciding to do.

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