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Wednesday, February 10,2010

Like butter and water

Lansing City Market’s popcorn man leaves for Old Town

by Gretchen Cochran

Chad Jordan is a big man. His palm swallows another’s when he shakes hands. His smile is like Magic Johnson’s: It stretches from ear to ear. His persona fills a room. So when the 37-year-old decided to pull his popcorn business out of Lansing’s new City Market before its vendors reached full stride, his absence made a big hole — not just in floor space but also in the loss of his driving personality.


It was a tough decision, he said. Back in the old market building, he’d been the vendor association president, cheerleading for the controversial move. He’d been at the market for two years and could see the potential of a new building, closer to the river and folded into the festival concepts the mayor touted. He’d stood with the dignitaries at the groundbreaking and been at the new building’s beam signing.


But then the process slowed. Contracts had to be re-bid. The opening was delayed from December to January. And vendors’ fees started to add up. Jordan says promises were broken and vendor costs mushroomed. Costs that were to be carried by the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, which manages the market, were deferred to the merchants, he said, and his projected move-in expenses grew to $5,000.


Market manager John Hooper was saddened when Jordan said he would be moving his 2-year-old company to Old Town from the new market building, referred to by some as the City Pole Barn. Knowing Jordan as the hard-charging, get-it-done type, Hooper thinks Jordan simply couldn’t tolerate the delays. But if he’d stayed on board, he could have been doing business this week, and the expenses would have been half what Jordan projected.


Hooper denies that the prepared-food vendors at the market are being abused with huge cost add-ons.


“From Day One we told the vendors the build out would be their responsibility,” he said. But most of the vendors, many who had been at the market for decades, were used to the city, or Hooper himself, doing things for them without charge, he said. On occasion, the code compliance officers would look the other way for minor infractions, he added.


“Things are different now, and properly so,” Hooper said.


With the pending move, numerous regulatory bodies were involved, including the Ingham County Health Department, the Michigan Department of Agriculture, the Lansing Fire Department, various building inspectors, and more. Loopholes were tightened.


On the other hand, on moving day, the plumbing was ready, the walls were sealed, electrical outlets were upgraded to 220 where necessary, the fire-sprinkler system was installed, and two 199,000 BTU gasfired water heaters were in place, all at no charge to the vendors.


But the vendors were asked to pay for utility hook-ups.


And then came the bird issue.


Anyone who’s attended events at the Lansing Center knows that with its high ceilings and clerestory windows come birds. They
swoop through the building, creating both amusement and distress. The
new Lansing City Market has equally high ceilings and similar-style
windows.


“The Health Department doesn’t want the birds pooping in the food,” said one vendor who asked not to be identified.


Hence,
any vendor actually preparing food at the market must have a canopy.
The canopy has to be made of a material that is easy to clean and hung
at an easily accessible height. Lexon polycarbonate, a clear, ribbed
material was selected, framed with wood, and is being hung above the
food preparation areas.


The canopies were a surprise, Hooper said, and the expense was passed on to the vendors, although LEPFA, which manages the
market, bought the canopy materials and is allowing the vendors to pay
for them over the next year. Costs range from $1,200 to $2,000 per
canopy.


The only other charge passed onto vendors preparing food on site was $650 each for the plumbing hook-up, Hooper said.


Hills
Cheese and City Fish expect to open this week. Seif Foods would have
opened this week, too, except the owners are on vacation, he added.


But
Shoua’s Chinese Restaurant and Aggie May’s Bakery will not open their
kitchens for a while. (Aggie May’s, however, is selling baked goods
prepared off site.) Aggie May’s awaits connection to a gas line that is
already in the building.


Shoua’s
equipment was antiquated and would not pass inspections, Hooper said.
She is buying new appliances that may cost $15,000 to $20,000.


Why would anyone invest so much in equipping a rental space? Hooper says if vendors
leave, they can take with them whatever they put in. The last owner in
the restaurant area of the old market, Green River, took everything
—counters, stoves, sinks, Hooper said.


“Those things are not the property of the market,” he said.


Hooper wishes Jordan was still with the market crew.


“But I understand when you’re not open, you’re not selling.”


He had no criticism of the plethora of inspectors that have slowed the process.


“I’m
happy with all the entities working here. They’ve bent over backwards
to be helpful without showing any favoritism,” he said.


“I wouldn’t expect that.”



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