Farmers, customers dislocated by OSU-OKC are choosing Farmers Public Market over Scissortail Park
When Brad Williams, president of Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City, announced in December his decision to close the campus farmers market, he caught the vendors by surprise, and some remained unaware until the following Saturday market day.
Jody and Burt McAnally, owners of the historic Farmers Public Market, worried Williams’ decision to move the market to Scissortail Park would hurt their three-year effort to revive Saturday markets at their historic Farmers Public Market at 311 S Klein Ave.
They were wrong.
“My phone was ringing off the hook starting that Saturday,” Jody McAnally said. “I had a few before that on the day it was announced. And then the rest of the week was crazy.”
Several vendors already have made the move to Farmers Public Market while even more have reserved space to make the move when the OSU-OKC market closes in February. The Scissortail Park market, meanwhile, won’t open until April and will be closed every October through March.
For farmers like Chad Ward, owner of Ward Family Farms in Pawnee, the loss of business for that long of a stretch dampened what had been a celebrated acceptance into the OSU-OKC market last year.
“We make quite a drive,” Ward said. “We’re about two hours from home. It made our business being at OSU-OKC. And then a year later, it’s gone. I’m closer to Tulsa. I was driving an hour more to be down here because it was so much better than in Tulsa.”
Ward’s first thought was to make the move to Scissortail Park, where the market will be outdoors compared to the enclosed pavilion at OSU-OKC. But as time passed, Ward took a closer look at the Farmers Public Market and made the move two weeks ago.
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“We were interested in Scissortail Park, but they just got more and more inconsistent about what was going on,” Ward said. “They couldn’t address the need to be year-around. We have to sell all year. My electric company wants money in December, too.”
Farmers Public Market revival
Farmers Public Market opened on June 16, 1928, on what had been the site of Delmar Gardens Amusement Park. The market, a two-story, 40,000-square foot mix of Spanish architecture with terracotta ornamentation, was built by John J. Harden in response to farmers selling their produce on downtown streets. The first floor was used by farmers selling produce, while the second floor hosted concerts, dances, boxing matches and roller-skating.
Before the start of its slow demise in the 1970s, the market also housed a grocery, meat market, candy store, bakery, cafe and a drug store. Legends like Hank Williams Sr., Count Basie and Bob Wills played in the second-floor auditorium.
The market inside the the building shut down in the 1970s and was replaced with an antique mall, though farmers still operated permanent stands surrounding the main building. The farmers stands continued to operate through the 1990s, but they virtually disappeared when the OSU-OKC market opened in 1996.
The McAnallys purchased the six-acre Farmers Public Market in 2002 from Harden’s grandson, John E. Harden. They spent millions adding an elevator, updating mechanical systems and restoring the second floor into an event center. The antique dealers were relocated to the buildings surrounding the north side of the market, where they remain today.
“Our whole goal was to restore the building,” Jody McAnally said. “Part of that was working on the downstairs. That was the farmers market, and we wanted it to be that again.”
The event space was the first part of the revival, hosting concerts, weddings and various dignitaries and politicians, including Barack Obama during his successful first run for president.
By the time they started up the farmers market where it started decades earlier, life was returning to adjoining properties in the district with the opening of The Pump House, Urban Agrarian and the Loaded Bowl.
Joined by Matt Burch, owner of Urban Agrarian, the McAnallys made multiple pitches to administrators at OSU-OKC about bringing their market to the Farmers Public Market.
“We had talked with them, and at one point they agreed,” Jody McAnally said. “But they changed their mind, and it never happened.”
OSU-OKC spokesman Nick Trougakos said any such talks took place before Williams was named campus president in December 2017.
Trougakos said Farmers Public Market was not part of the discussion when Williams decided to move the market to the new Scissortail Park, along with $210,000 in U.S. Agriculture Department grant money that will help pay for starting up the market and part of the cost of a market manager.
“We saw a need at Scissortail for programming there,” Trougakos said. “And they had a really successful fall market.”
Scissortail Park Executive Director Maureen Heffernan excitedly agreed to the move, seeing the opportunity to create a regional event that would add live music, entertainment and other offerings to a weekly farmers market.
“When the OSU folks came to us, it was fortuitous,” Heffernan said. “It just fell into our lap.”
Large numbers of the OSU-OKC farmers and customers were far less happy.
Wayne Jesko is one of the veterans at the OSU-OKC farmers market, operating his booth for the past 14 years.
“We found out 30 minutes before,” Jesko said. “We were quite upset, more so because of the way it was handled. There were people being told that we OK'd it, that they cleared it, ran it by us and that we were happy about the move and this was what we wanted.”
Had Williams talked to farmers like Jesko, he likely would have heard that the choice of Scissortail Park would hurt their livelihoods.
“Being indoors year around at OSU is a big deal, and Scissortail Park does not have that,” Jesko said. “Where you are indoors now, protected from the elements, it won’t be the same.”
Every farmer interviewed at OSU-OKC shared Jesko’s concerns.
Tara McClain, owner of Fresh from OK meat products, has operated at OSU-OKC for the past several years and is set to join others in the move to Farmers Public Market.
“I sell meat products, and Scissortail Park won’t have any refrigeration for us,” McClain said. “They didn’t talk about this to us at all. Farmers Public Market is a cool old building. It’s right downtown. It has the beautiful old-fashioned lights, and the people have been very welcoming. It’s an indoor market, so we will have a place to plug in our freezers and have refrigeration.”
Trougakos acknowledged OSU-OKC intentionally avoided discussing the end of the campus market with farmers before deciding to move it to the park.
“We knew our farmers are very passionate about this market, and they’ve been here for several years,” Trougakos said. “We knew it would be a sensitive subject with them. We struggled with figuring out what would be the best way to communicate on this. We knew some wouldn’t be happy because of why they liked our market, that they just walk in and have their booths and tables set up.”
Protests started popping up online within an hour of the story first being reported by The Oklahoman. Farmers and customers remain bitter over being excluded, and most interviewed indicated they prefer Farmers Public Market, which also has a comparable amount of free parking spaces to those at OSU-OKC.
Kari Harp, a longtime customer at the OSU-OKC market, shopped at Farmers Public Market before its demise in the 1990s, which she observed happened once OSU-OKC opened its market.
“Not everyone wants to go downtown,” Harp said. “The parking is not as good. It won’t be open year around. It’s not indoors. And it’s frustrating that they seem to want to move everything downtown. I will go to the Farmers Public Market.”
Only one customer, Mesta Park resident Todd Scott, told The Oklahoman that he is happy about the move to Scissortail Park. As he shopped at the Looney Farms booth at OSU-OKC, Scott shared how he likes to get to the market when it first opens, which is when chefs pick over the best produce for their restaurants.
“This place is packed during the summer,” Scott said. “I like the idea of going to the park. I like the experience of a farmers market being outside, having a lot of people and it being a great experience.”
He added he also likes the idea that Scissortail Park will be able to host more vendors while OSU-OKC’s pavilion’s capacity keeps the number of farmers limited to between 30 and 40 vendors on any given Saturday.
'Not how you treat people'
Some farmers say they are preparing to anchor their operations at Farmers Public Market while also operating at Scissortail Park.
“We’re going to divide and conquer,” said Karrie Chlebanowski, who operates a farm near Blanchard with her husband. “Instead of both of us being together, one of us will work at Scissortail Park, and the other will be at Farmers Public Market. It’s extra infrastructure and expenses we weren’t anticipating. We’re going to get an enclosed trailer and convert that to a cool space to keep the meat, and we’ll build a stand to go next to that.”
Heffernan said 45 vendors, including 15 from OSU-OKC, have signed up for the Scissortail Park opening on April 4.
“I think we’ll get some more,” Heffernan said. “There is a waiting list that was for the OSU-OKC market. We want our market to be primarily a farmers market. We don’t want it to be like a flea market … and it will be a Made in Oklahoma market where vendors must grow or make the food in Oklahoma.”
McAnally admits her market has allowed several craft vendors, but only a couple will remain as OSU-OKC farmers continue to move to Farmers Public Market. The McAnallys don’t have the $221,000 being given to Scissortail Park for a similar ramp-up, but they also are applying for Oklahoma grown certification from the Department of Agriculture.
Once the OSU-OKC market closes, Farmers Public Market will be home to more than 40 vendors.
“Come March, we will not have a vacant spot,” McAnally said.
Burch, who opened Urban Agrarian in 2012, said OSU-OKC’s actions are a bonanza for the Farmers Market district.
The changes coincide with traffic lights being added to the Klein Avenue and Oklahoma City Boulevard intersection and a change of Klein from one-way to two-way traffic next month, providing the landmark its best access and visibility in decades.
“The market was a feather in their cap at OSU for almost 30 years,” Burch said. “They were so proud of this. There will be public relations and some aspects of being downtown that might be good. But buying groceries and parking downtown, that’s not what everyone wants.”
OSU-OKC, Burch added, betrayed the farmers whose interests have been a part of OSU since it was founded as an agricultural land grant university.
“I don’t understand why an organization goes out of the way to be this callus,” Burch said. “This is not how a business should be run. This is not how you treat people.”
Trougakos said OSU-OKC has no regret over its handling of the move, but admits communication could have been better over why it was needed.
“We haven't communicated well that we need this pavilion space to support our academic program,” Trougakos said. “We’ve grown in public safety programs, and they do not have any indoor training facility to use.”