Padolsky: The birth and death of the ByWard Market

The ByWard Market in the early 1970s. Photo: Heritage Ottawa

Monday, May 13, 2019

OPINION | OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Barry Padolsky

In 2027, The citizens of Ottawa will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Ottawa’s historic ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest and continuously operating civic markets.

This milestone, just eight years away, will undoubtedly be commemorated by tributes, festivities and revelry (for which the market is justly famous).

Established by Col. John By, the British engineer responsible for building the Rideau Canal and the settlement called Bytown, the market is one of Ottawa’s iconic urban landmarks. Along with the canal and Parliament Buildings, the market defines Ottawa’s dual identity as a national capital and a living city. The ByWard Market is one of the capital’s premier tourist destinations.

In anticipating the upcoming Bytown Bicentennial jubilee, it is comforting to know that, notwithstanding the occasional devastating fire, the market’s architectural heritage is well protected through the Ontario Heritage Act.

Sadly however, the ByWard Market’s most colourful (and tangible) cultural asset – its farmers’ market – is not well protected. Even more sadly, Col. By’s farmers’ market is actually on the brink of extinction. Regrettably, this is not an exaggeration.

The gradual disappearance of the “agri-food” market vendors, which started two decades ago, has now become exponential. This is clearly evident to regular market food shoppers. The evidence is not subjective. It can be measured by a survey of the 106 or so outdoor stalls traditionally reserved for by the City of Ottawa markets administration for “agri-food” vendors (mainly food, plants and flowers).

For those unfamiliar with the market’s geography,  these reserved “agri-food” stalls line the west side of ByWard Street facing Lapointe’s Fish Market, Saslove’s Meat Market, the  ByWard Fruit Market, and two cheese shops. Reserved “agri-food” stalls also occupy three sides of the ByWard Market Building and a portion of York Street opposite the Château Lafayette (opened 1849) and the Irving Rivers “We corner the Market” store.

As recently as 1999, all of the “agri-food” stalls (of the 250-plus outdoor stalls) were fully occupied in the summer months by food, plant and flower vendors – as they were for generations.

Here is the bad news: By 2012, only 50 per cent of these “agri-food” stalls were regularly occupied by vendors selling food, plants or flowers in the mid-summer season.

And by 2018, only 30 per cent of these “agri-food” stalls were occupied by vendors selling food, plants or flowers on a typical summer day. The unoccupied stalls were replaced either by parking, street furniture or craft vendors.

The good news is that this coming extinction is entirely reversible.

In 2018, the City of Ottawa reported that its agricultural economy generated $400 million a year, with $137 million in farm gate sales. The city further reported that within the city limits, there are 1,045 farms representing 252,423 acres of land farmed by more than 1,200 agricultural operations, employing approximately 10,000 people.

Ottawa’s farmers have shown a great interest in selling directly to consumers (farm to table), as testified by the growth of suburban weekend farmers’ markets at Lansdowne Park, Westboro, Orléans and Riverside South.

So why is the ByWard Farmers’ Market on its way to extinction? Is it the competition from the suburban farmers’ markets? Is it the competition from the online organic home delivery services? Is it the competition from Loblaws, Metro and Farm Boy, the food retailing behemoths? Undoubtedly yes.

However, without resorting to excessive tactfulness, it is time to plainly identify the principal author of the decline of the ByWard Farmers’ Market: the City of Ottawa itself.

It is no secret that, over the last two decades, through indifference and  mismanagement, the  City of Ottawa has driven away some of the region’s most dedicated farmers from the market.

Worse, Ottawa’s new ByWard Market Authority and Ottawa’s Planning, Infrastructure  and Economic Development Department have failed to slow the extinction process by attracting the region’s agricultural entrepreneurs to the market’s business opportunity.

And what is this opportunity? Simply that, at a very minimum, there is a significant consumer population (55,000 residents) within two kilometres of the market who, as an alternative to supermarket aisle shopping, would welcome the experience of purchasing local fresh seasonal agricultural products in an urban precinct that is colourful and entertaining. This population alone is 50 times greater than the population of Bytown when it was founded.

Add to this consideration, the untapped market demand by the 98,000 employees who work in Ottawa’s nearby downtown core, and the even larger population who will have convenient access to the market from the LRT Confederation Line Rideau Station when it opens (any month now?).

Rebuilding Col. By’s farmers’ market should not be perceived as a nostalgic charitable gesture. It would be a wise and bold economic investment strategy for the City of Ottawa. On the contrary, a robust farmers’ market would enrich the character of the ByWard Market Heritage Conservation District, would reinforce Ottawa’s attractiveness as a tourism destination, and would strengthen the local agricultural industry.

Will the bicentennial celebration of Col. By’s market in 2027 be a cause for revelry or a wistful tribute to the extinction of the farmers’ market? Decisive leadership by Mayor Jim Watson, city councillors and city manager Steve Kanellakos would be warmly honoured and remembered.