NORTH LIBERTY- Summer break is in full force in North Liberty. The rec center pool is open for business, and cyclists are eagerly strapping on their helmets for a weekend ride. But the absence of a certain community fixture may leave some locals scratching their heads.
Due to strained commitments by its owners, the Penn Landing Market has yet to reopen for 2018, its future uncertain. Established four years ago, the event has traditionally run every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., May through October. The market began as a private enterprise under Veronica Tessler, owner of Iowa City's Yotopia frozen yogurt shop and at one time a North Liberty location; and by Lesley Triplett, owner of Dumpling Darling in Iowa City. When these businesses took priority, the two offered management duties to Nolan Petersen, eventually offering him full ownership of the market.
Today, Petersen co-owns the Penn Landing Market with Emily Roberts, but history often has a way of repeating itself. Petersen is a Realtor in the Iowa City area and works for nonprofit organizations, while Roberts works for Integrated DNA Technologies, Inc. in Coralville, and these obligations have led them to seek out community partners to take over the market.
"We knew that this was coming up and so we have been very diligently searching for somebody else to help us out," said Petersen, who is still reaching out to various organizations and local leaders to try put the wheels back in motion.?He's even considered enlisting college students for a paid internship.
The city's stance
Petersen and Roberts have also actively solicited the City of North Liberty to take over the farmers' market, as is common in neighboring communities, with no success.
"We've approached the City of North Liberty twice: once with good, substantive information to prove that the market was a valuable community resource, and then the second time with a survey taken by residents of North Liberty in which we had just under 200 responses," he explained.
Petersen feels the city is making assumptions without having asked the right questions regarding the outcome of the market.
"Many smaller towns are running their markets through the city," Petersen said, citing Ely, Swisher and West Liberty. "So I find it very surprising that the City of North Liberty is not able to find the resources either financial or personnel to run the market."
Communications Director for the City of North Liberty, Nick Bergus explained, while he would like to find an appropriate solution, the city doesn't have the resources to handle the market as it currently stands.
"We discussed this with Nolan and Emily, prior to last year's market, the need to look at and assess what is the best way to make this a sustainable thing going forward, and I think there are some outstanding issues and discussions that need to happen to figure out how best to situate the market," Bergus said. "There's a reason I think, too, that Nolan and Emily are finding it difficult to have somebody step in to pick it up. It's resource intensive."
He went on to cite towns like Ely and Swisher as more agricultural and demographically distinct from today's North Liberty.
"I think that some of the discussion internally has been, let's take a year off and rethink it, rather that just saying, 'we need a farmers' market,' and doing the same thing," he summarized.
While frustrated with his situation, Petersen is grateful for the City of North Liberty's past help in facilitating the market.
"We have been lucky in previous years for the city to provide us, I would say, a small level of promotion," he acknowledged, citing that the city still hosts and pays for the market's website, which has not been updated since 2016, and has helped promote the event in the past.
In a Nov. 2, 2017 memo, City Administrator Ryan Heiar assessed the market's relationship with the city, remarking, "Unfortunately, we currently just don't have the manpower to undertake an endeavor of this size and to make it successful."
As also noted in the memo, a North Liberty farmers' market was in fact created and operated by city staff at the community rec center several years prior to Penn Landing Market. This early endeavor, Heiar said, ended due to a lack of vendors and customers.
"It appears we are seeing a similar pattern with the current market in that the interest is not there," the city administrator noted, adding that Coralville has also reduced its market from twice a week to once, and how even that one evening event sometimes struggles.
"With our neighboring communities already offering this service and our previous two failed attempts at sustaining a market, I think it's fair to ask: is there a need and support for a market?"
The North Liberty City Council went on to discuss it during a Nov. 14 meeting. Citing a lack of proper shelter, which the Iowa City market benefits from, as well as inadequate demand, the council overwhelmingly agreed to shelve the idea of assuming responsibility at this time.
"We don't want the market to close," Counselor Chris Hoffman noted, but explained the city is not in a position to accept the responsibility of the market.
Counselor Jim Sayre agreed, noting, "To be completely frank, it's not entirely successful right now."
According to Petersen, for those who might be interested in assuming responsibilities, there are various qualities that make the Penn Landing Market an attractive venture.
"We've been lucky in that our operating expenses have been really low," he said, citing low-liability status due to the use of privately-owned space.
Petersen confessed the 2017 market did face a curious dip in customer turnout- remedied with a bolstered marketing campaign- but thanks to small sponsorships by Hills Bank and Trust and the University of Iowa Community Credit Union (UICCU), the event was able to sustain a profit, which he cited as evidence of its staying power. Petersen said the donations were simply needed to help cover the cost of live music.
"There is a space here for someone to operate this market without having to invest a large amount of their personal finances to run it," he said. "And I firmly believe that that is something that makes the market an attractive opportunity for somebody who has a passion for the North Liberty area, has a passion for promoting local goods and also a passion for promoting live music accessibility."
Regarding dedication of time, Petersen said the market takes no more than 15 hours a week to run, a chunk of that being the actual time spent at the market.
The owner also cited the integrity of the Penn Landing Market's localized mission. Aside from a few rare exceptions, vendors have been required to show the owners that they make or grow their products within the State of Iowa. Corridor-based music acts like Vandello, Angela Meyer and Stacy Webster & Byron Stevens have also been a fixture of the event.
"It's about promoting and marketing these local products, these local producers, and that's something that I have a passion for," he said.
A future in question
As to whether the Penn Landing Market will make any showing whatsoever this year, Petersen was hesitant to make a prediction.
"It's hard to say. I am still very actively seeking out other organizations or individuals to run the market," he insisted. "And I am very hopeful that we will find someone who believes as strongly as we do that both North Liberty and area farmers deserve to have this outlet to sell their product."
"I think that if this is something that the community really wants to see, there will be people that step up and pick it up," Bergus said of the market's future. "I would continue to happily work with community members that wanted to pick this up and organize it, without a doubt."
Those interested in taking part in the management of the Penn Landing Market are encouraged to contact its Facebook page. Petersen also suggests residents who believe in the event to stress to the City of North Liberty and its city council the importance of the Penn Landing Market to their community.
"I'm hopeful that I have not finished turning over every stone possible to try and find someone to take over the market," he said. "And I also believe very strongly that there are people out there who believe in connecting local producers with local customers as strongly as I believe in that."