Last September, Jennifer and Stephan White started an indoor flea market in an unused industrial building in Bend, Ore. The Bend Indoor Markets was a great success, attracting over 80 vendors. But half a year later, the local city council issued an ultimatum: Pay $12,000 for a zoning change or be shut down. Choosing not to bow to the legal extortion, the market closed its doors Wednesday, Feb. 16., after the Bend City Council refused to relent. “It’s been an ordeal,” says Stephan White. “we’ve been in business six months, and as of last night, the city put us out of business.”
The market venue is zoned industrial, with an exception for “incidental retail.” The market was open for only a few hours each week, so the Whites thought it could pass the zoning hurdle as merely incidental. As Jennifer White told KTVZ News:
White said the vendors only sell for six hours a week, and argued in a industrial light zone incidental sales are allowed. “I guess it’s all how you read the code,” White said. “And to fight the code costs a lot of money.”
The City of Bend did not see a part-time market as incidental retail, however. According to Bend city recorder Patty Stell, “The way the staff reads the code does not support that position.” The city has not clarified what retail, if any would qualify as “incidental.” Stell adds that although several market vendors came before the city council to ask for the zoning change, the city declined to take that route. “The council is not going to proceed with any kind of text amendment on its own,” she explains.
The zoning ruling especially sticks in the craw of Stephan White, because there are other retail establishments in the industrially zoned area. “There are other businesses that are like ours but that have not been singled out for zoning violations,” he says. “This town’s full of them.” KTVZ cited one such retailer in the industrial zone, a consignment furniture store named Redeux. White intends to draw attention to those other businesses, since, he says, it is not fair that they continue to operate after his swap meet was shut down.
But what about the vendors? A number of Bend Indoor Markets vendors have found a new venue, opening tomorrow, Feb. 19, just a block from another swap meet. The existing swap meet and the new market are both on Franklin Street, and these “Franklin Markets” are working to create spaces in which vendors can form a vibrant retail community in downtown Bend.
Trevor Benjamin is a one of the vendors who helped found the new market in town, the Merchants’ Market. “Martin Morris is the man who started it, and there are several of us employees. It’s pretty much run by a team of vendors,” he explains. “Most of us used to vend over at the Bend Indoor Markets. The city has been trying to shut them down, and last night the city council told them they could not maintain operations. Martin, along with a group of us, got together and decided to start up a new market for the vendors, run by the vendors, based off the other one, but solving all the problems.”
The first challenge was to find a venue that was zoned for commercial retail, to avoid the problem that mortally wounded the Bend Indoor Markets. That took some searching, but then the right place came along. “We stumbled on this building, found the right real estate broker, the right building owner who was willing to work with us, and it all just started falling into place,” says Benjamin. “It’s right in the middle of the busiest part of the city, next to Safeway and Ace Hardware. We’re planning on being busy.”
Benjamin says that the Merchants’ Market now has room for 120 vendors, and is filling up fast. “We open Saturday,” says Benjamin. “Half of the market will be open seven days a week, and the other half will be a normal weekend market.” For the weekend, prices start at $25 per weekend, or as low as $50 per week. Benjamin himself is selling at the flea market — “I’m the Oregon Soap Factory. I sell hand made olive oil, hemp oil, and grapeseed oil soaps.” Merchants’ Market will focus more on higher-end items. “We’re more arts and crafts, handmade stuff, and small businesses,” says Benjamin.
That’s compared with the three-year-old Indoor Swap Meet, open on Saturdays just two blocks from the Merchants’ Market. “I have mostly eclectic products at my swap meet,” says owner Carol Jacobs, “from garage sale items to antiques and collectibles. It’s a real mish-mash. I’m not the same as those other indoor markets.” She says that there is “absolutely” plenty of room in Bend for two or even three swap meets and flea markets. “My business is excellent. I only have 50 spaces for vendors, but for those 50 spaces we get at least 700 adults coming through on a Saturday.”
Jacobs is sorry to see the Indoor Bend Markets go. “It was very successful. It’s just unfortunate that the zoning wasn’t correct for them,” she says. “I think it’s too bad.” On the other hand, she is glad to welcome the Merchants’ Market. “It’s only two blocks away from me,” she says. “I think the location is fabulous. The concept behind what they are doing is perfect, and the town can support them.”
Stephan White is less sure of that, because commercial property rental rates generally are up to four times as high as industrial rates. He thinks that the way the City of Bend is thwarting industrial space use is extremely short-sighted. “Large cities like Portland have been converting industrial to retail for years,” he says. “The City of Bend has 200,000 square feet of industrial vacant buildings right now, just sitting there. Indoor markets are an obvious solution to help people.”
He is clearly still angry about the way his market has been put out of business. “Why is the city so anti-business?” he asks. “We need business like mad. We’ve lost thousands of industrial jobs. This town is in great distress, as far as economics go, but according to the Bend City Council, by the majority anyway, you wouldn’t know it.”