Leader Blues

Saturday, June 13, 2009

TOP STORY >> Produce stand rejected by city

By JONATHAN FELDMAN
Leader staff writer

Sam Adams, 79, is in poor health. He suffered a stroke this year and is now in a wheelchair.

His son Doug’s teenaged granddaughter was murdered in Jacksonville last August during what police described as a carjacking gone wrong. His home burned down in January.

Doug owned the Jacksonville Fitness Center before the city decided to close the Graham Road railroad crossing, which put him out of business, he said.

For the Adams family, it’s been one struggle after another. But despite the personal tragedies and the business setbacks, the men say they have not given up on Jacksonville. They recently tried to set up a vegetable stand called Hard Times Produce on John Harden Drive.

But the city shot them down because of a little-known ordinance that forbids produce stands from doing business in Jacksonville outside of a downtown farmers market area that has yet to attract many vendors. It is supposed to be open just Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Sam can’t get around like he used to. A trek to downtown three days a week would be too hard on him, he said.

“We thought getting a $50 permit would be our smallest hurdle,” Doug said.

The men bought a walk-in refrigerator for $2,000 and a truck trailer for $1,500. They assumed that their business was set to take off, thinking a variety of fresh Arkansas fruits and vegetables would be appreciated by area residents.

Sam and Doug wanted to set up shop at a more convenient location, the Absolute Medical parking lot on John Harden Drive near James Street, which is just steps from the Adams’ front door.

Absolute Medical was happy to let them sell their produce for as long as they wanted, they said. “Absolute Medical and Liberty Tires (another area business) thought it would bring them more business, and it would be stronger here for us than Main Street,” Doug said.

The Adams family believes it’s being driven out of town by poor decisions made by the city council. “We’re being forced to go elsewhere,” Doug said.

“We went to check out Gravel Ridge and Sherwood,” which allow vendors to set up where they like, he said.

“But we want to stay here, close to home because of my father’s disability,” Doug said.

The city’s farmers market ordinance was an initiative of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce to bring some new life to the city’s downtown, according to City Manager Jay Whisker.

Sam Adams has been selling produce in town for more than 10 years. After he retired from the railroad, he became a fixture at the old Jacksonville Fitness Center on North First Street and sold produce out front. Business went flat at the gym and the produce stand.

“We were put out of business when the crossing closed. We dropped 70 percent in sales. We had 20 employees and went down to just four,” Doug said of his fitness center after the city blockaded the Graham Road crossing.

Because traffic dropped near the gym, he says customers had trouble getting to it and it was forced to close.

“There’s nothing left there,” Doug said.

Other businesses were forced to shut down after the street closing. The bait shop, the gas station, the Laundromat and a restaurant have all vanished from the area, leaving plenty of boarded up windows behind. They suspect that the farmers market ordinance is similar to the decision to close the crossing: another well-intentioned but poorly conceived plan that hurts small-business owners.

“They shut vendors down first and didn’t provide us a market place,” Doug said.

The city plans to build a permanent farmers market next to the community center, but the men were told that it would take at least another year before it would open.

The temporary market on Main Street, across from the new library, has had little support so far, which is another reason why they want to open Hard Times Produce along John Harden Drive.

“The ordinance was set up so we could have a location for a farmers market,” Whisker said. Reconsidering the ordinance will be “up to the new mayor,” he said.

Recently, the Adamses met with Mayor Tommy Swaim. Doug pushed his father in his wheelchair down to city hall. On the way, Sam fell out of his wheelchair and injured his arm, but they managed to make their appointment.

They say Swaim told them that an exception to the ordinance wouldn’t be fair and that changing the ordinance would take at least a month. The mayor told them to go to the farmers market on Main Street three times a week.

Sam Adams brushed himself off and asked the mayor, “How can a business profit working three days a week?”

He hopes that mayor-elect Gary Fletcher will throw out the farmers market ordinance when he takes office at the end of the month.

For now, they just hope that Hard Times Produce will soon see better days and remain in Jacksonville, despite the hard times.