Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2001 | 9:49 a.m.
Every Wednesday afternoon in Summerlin, Ginger and Steve Johnson shuck fresh ears of corn, lather them with garlic butter and serve them to residents attending the only farmers' market in the city of Las Vegas.
City officials, who have encouraged continuation of the farmers' market at Bruce Trent Park, hope to bring similar events to other neighborhoods.
The Johnsons, who operate the farmers' market, are afraid their nearly two-year venture may fade as they struggle with expenses and operating fees, which, they say, have made the business unprofitable.
A proposed city ordinance that would establish new business licensing requirements for farmers' markets could lessen some of the fees paid by the Johnsons.
But the couple are unsure as to whether it would help their business. Some of the new requirements, they say, could make it harder for them to attract new vendors and would treat their business differently than a supermarket, which they say is unfair.
When she opened the market in November 1999, Ginger Johnson said, there were only a handful of vendors, and the city didn't have a business licensing process for farmers' markets. The market was also new to the Clark County Health District.
Johnson said she helped spark new rules for farmers' markets and, in return, has spent much of her revenue paying operating fees to the city and the health department.
As the number of vendors at the market began to grow -- now averaging about 20 per week -- so did the fees the Johnsons had to pay the city. The Johnsons, as the market operators, are permitted to hold their market at the park in exchange for a portion of their gross revenue. Booths cost $30 per vendor -- $7.50 per vendor goes to the city.
The remaining $22.50 goes back into running the market, which includes advertising costs and fees paid to the health district, Ginger Johnson said.
Each vendor, including the Johnsons -- who are also vendors, operating "Ears To You" -- pays the health district either $75 every two weeks, the cost for a high-risk vendor; or $15 a month, the cost for low-risk vendors. The health district classifies the vendors either high or low risk depending on what is being sold.
Vendors such as Walter Bellard Jr., who operates Louisiana Cajun Barbecue, would be considered a high-risk vendor because he cooks fresh meat. The Johnsons' fresh corn stand would be considered low-risk, because cooking is not involved.
Even though she has been operating the market for more than a year, Ginger Johnson said she has yet to turn a profit.
"We're really being fee-d to death," Johnson said. "I'm hoping some day to take a paycheck, but it hasn't happened yet."
The proposed ordinance, discussed this past week by the city's recommending committee, would require operators of farmers' markets to pay a flat fee of $100 per year for their business license. An amendment to the ordinance reduced the fee from a proposed $200 annually.
The market operators would no longer be required to pay the city a portion of their gross revenue, which Ginger Johnson said amounts to about $600 a month. But the Johnsons say even with the change they will still pay part of their profits to the city. The proposed ordinance requires non-food vendors to pay the city $10 a month, a fee Ginger Johnson said she will have to take out of the $30 she gets from each vendor.
The Johnsons are scheduled to meet this week with Jim DiFiore, the city's director of business licencing, to discuss the proposed ordinance. The ordinance is scheduled to go back before the recommending committee Oct. 1.
The ordinance also states that the number of vendors who are selling farm products must comprise at least 60 percent of the total number of vendors. Ginger Johnson said she can't bring in more vendors without disrupting the required balance.
"That's a big deal for us," Johnson said. "That part of the ordinance needs to be flexible. If you can never add any new vendors without someone else dying out first, then it will never work."
Anyone who conducts business in the city is required to pay a licensing fee, which goes toward the city's general fund, DiFiore said.
DiFiore said the ordinance is being introduced to provide separate rules for farmers' markets, as well as a chapter in the city code that applies solely to operators. It also gives the city more oversight, he said.
The Johnsons say business is better in the city of Henderson, which sponsors a farmers' market of its own. Vendors are charged $15 per booth each time they operate, Ginger Johnson said.
Business at the Summerlin market was brisk Wednesday. The market offers fresh produce for prices comparable with those in supermarkets. For example, giant grapefruits were selling for 50 cents apiece, bell peppers for $1. Volkzer Ritzinger was selling a dozen types of fresh bread for about $3 to $4 a loaf.
As children munched on Rita Lee's kettle corn, the longest line at Bruce Trent Park was at Walter's Louisiana Cajun Barbecue, where meats were being grilled.
The Johnsons, who shuck their corn while exchanging laughs with customers, say they'll continue to operate as long as it is feasible.
"Farmers' markets are very fragile, and if we're overtaxed and overfee-d we just won't be here anymore," Ginger Johnson said. "It's not a money-making venture, it's a community service."