City officials considering allowing flea markets

Two years ago when Sara Kazee organized a 15-vendor all-vintage flea market on 13th Avenue in Northeast, just two days before the launch, she discovered something that shocked her.

Outdoor flea markets or second-hand markets are illegal, according to City of Minneapolis code, which mainly allows for markets that traffic in agricultural products. A co-organizer had been misinformed early in the organization process.

“I was completely shocked. I just couldn’t even believe it. They’re illegal and even the word ‘illegal’ seemed so wrong for a flea market,” said Kazee owner of Fried Bologna Vintage on 13th, which sells mostly clothing and accessories. 

But, Kazee and partner businesses could get their day of sales in the sun, if Minneapolis changes its code, something that is under review by city zoning staff and has support of some city council members.

City Council Member Gary Schiff said he wants a new ordinance passed in time to allow people like Kazee to plan flea markets to open in 2013. He described an ordinance that would resemble farmers markets’ ordinance. It would require a license, a parking plan, onsite bathrooms, set operating hours, a master lease holder, a permanent site and subcontracts for spaces. The ordinance would also require the markets to be located on commercial parking lots, not in residential areas.

“Think of Lake Street. Think of Central Avenue. Think of the equivalent to a farmers market vendor, but selling second hand items,” he said.

He said the ordinance would allow Minneapolis to catch up with generational and consumer shifts toward thriftiness that were reinforced by the recession.

“This is a growing part of the economy,” he said. “[The ordinance] wouldn’t mean that people can start selling pit-bulls out of boxes or that people can start to sell shoes out of cars on freeway exit ramps,” he said, adding that the ordinance would create added revenue for thrift stores, not take their business away. Schiff also said he wants the ordinance to allow no more than 10 percent produce. 

Technically, under the city code, crafts and other goods are allowed at block parties but they can be held only four times a year in one location. Schiff said that creates the added expense and inconvenience of closed streets. 

Currently there are 27 public markets operating in the city — 10 large farmers markets, three craft and produce markets and 14 small farmers markets, which are limited to five vendors, according to the City of Minneapolis.

Kazee’s idea wouldn’t be the first non-farmers market to run afoul of city regulations.

In 2009, the Uptown Market was forced to change plans and its unique mix of crafts and produce due to city regulations. It finally folded this year after transforming its mix of vendors three times in order to conform to its vision or regulations.

”We put a tremendous of time and effort into working with the city to make it work and that took a lot of time away from doing things that we should have been doing,” said Shaun Laden, a volunteer board member, referring to the loss of time to work on building the market’s success.

 In its first year the market ran four times as a block party selling a mix of craft goods and produce. It then became weekly in 2010 and 2011, but under regulations it was forced to become a farmers market with at least 75 percent produce, said Laden.

Last year the market worked with the city to allow for craft/market hybrids but by June the market, which had finally found a balance between the two, closed. 

Laden said many volunteers moved on to other projects.

David Brauer, a board member of the Kingfield and Fulton farmers markets, said the city will need to be watchful for potential unintended consequences and protect the interest of neighbors and other businesses. He said that the amount of produce at the markets should be limited to avoid over-saturating the market for farm produce.

“What I don’t want is for it to get so big that there is so much competition on every corner, that no one makes any money,” he said, adding that allowing a small amount of produce could give some opportunities for produce vendors at smaller markets. 

Schiff said he planned to meet with farmers market organizers to discuss the ordinance and their ideas.

Council Member Meg Tuthill said she would reserve her final opinion until she sees the draft ordinance, but the idea itself sounds like a “no-brainer.”

“I was surprised to learn they are not allowed,” she said, adding that flea markets could provide fund-raising opportunities for churches and schools.

Kazee said she sees flea markets as a new way to reach more than just new customers, but build community.

“We were creating not just a flea market. We were creating an event,” she said adding that she wanted the feel of a farmers market. “It’s not just where people go to buy and sell stuff.”