Although city officials had announced that the hours and season length of the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market would be shorter than last summer, the hours now have been restored, and the season extended by one week.
The Sunday market, which has opened each week at 9 a.m. since the end of May, will continue to operate until 1 p.m. and will run through Nov. 8 rather than Nov. 1, as was announced prior to the commencement of the season. The market ran until the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving last year.
Since its launch last summer, the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market, located in the parking lot behind the buildings on Murray Avenue between Beacon and Bartlett streets, has become a popular Sunday morning destination among local residents who come to buy fresh produce, baked goods and gourmet items and to socialize.
Last spring, Citiparks announced to the market’s vendors that it would be shortening the hours of the market after Labor Day from 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., rather than allowing it to run to its usual closing time of 1 p.m. Citiparks also announced that the market would conclude for the season on Nov. 1 rather than Nov. 22, although the written contracts previously signed by the vendors stated the market would run through Nov. 22.
The reason for the announced change in hours and season length, according to Citiparks and District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor, was a staffing shortage due to the opening of the Schenley Park Ice Skating Rink for the winter season.
But a rumor began circulating in the community that the city had bowed to pressure from a local proprietor on Murray Avenue who had complained about the Farmers Market and a purported loss of business due to parking issues.
O’Connor and Mirella Ranallo, Citiparks’ supervisor of the Farmers Market, both denied the rumor.
“The skating rink opens in early November,” Ranallo said. “It was hard last year because on the weekends the rink has lots of business. You need as many employees as you can get.”
There is only one Citiparks employee, however, who is assigned to man the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market each week, according to Ranallo, who also stops by to make sure things are running smoothly.
Citiparks is able to extend the season of the Farmers Market one additional week, Ranallo said, because the skating rink is currently under construction and will have a delayed opening.
“We were able to work through staffing to get an extra weekend because of the construction at the ice rink,” said O’Connor. “We are trying to get the best market for the community.”
Squirrel Hill resident Fran Borovetz, who has been a fan of the market since it opened last summer, prepared a petition to maintain the 1 p.m. closing time of the market and to extend the season past the first week in November upon hearing of the planned shortening of hours and season. She circulated the petition at the market on Sunday, Aug. 23, and within a few hours, she had obtained more than 1,100 signatures.
Another fan of the market, Penny Mateer, started a Facebook page called “Save the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market.”
By the following Sunday, city officials had decided to keep the 1 p.m. closing time through the end of the season and to extend the season one week, through Nov. 8. Citiparks maintains that the petition had no bearing on its decision.
“The petition had nothing to do with it,” said Ranallo.
Keeping the market open until 1 p.m. rather than 12:15 impacts customers as well as vendors.
Tara Bailey, activities director at Weinberg Terrace, a personal care residence across the street from the Farmers Market, said she was “disturbed” when she heard the hours and season for the market would be shorter than last summer.
“The Farmers Market provides great access to residents and staff for clean eating,” she said. “Cutting back the hours would throw our schedule off. We take the residents over as a group. If they go to lunch at 11 or 11:30, they like to go to the market afterward. If the market closed at 12:15, there would be no time for them to do that.”
Bailey said she is disappointed that the season is ending earlier than last year.
“This is a great Sunday activity for us,” she said. “It’s on our calendar.”
Gerry Wendell, who lives in Greenfield, but comes to the market every Sunday, said she thought it was “terrible” when she heard the market’s hours and season would be shorter than last summer’s.
“We like to come through the fall,” she said. “Good things are hard to find, and the quality is great here.”
For vendor Chris Brittenburg of Who Cooks for You Farm in New Bethlehem, shorter hours and a shorter season “is extremely significant.”
He said he and the other vendors were told of the changes before the beginning of the season but were nonetheless upset by having to conclude early in November.
“I talked to a bunch of vendors,” Brittenburg said. “It seems to us that if this is because of a staffing reason, that seems pretty strange. This is by far our most lucrative market, and cutting the season was a huge smack in the face. We have everything purchased by the winter.
“Every single week we are there, we are talking a couple thousand dollars,” Brittenburg continued. “Losing that income is huge. For a small business, it’s hard. And all the other markets are basically going to Nov. 24, until right before Thanksgiving.”
The majority of other farmers markets operated by Citiparks, including those in East Liberty, the South Side, Carrick and the North Side, do have seasons that run through the third week of November, according to Citiparks’ website.
Frank Zibritosky, co-owner of Paul’s Orchards in Burgettstown, was also dismayed by the decision of Citiparks to end the market earlier than last year’s.
“I’d love to go to the end of November,” he said. “We still have a lot of produce. People like the market here, and we like to do it.”
Zibritosky said he was “totally surprised” when the changes in the dates and time were announced.
“We will definitely lose money,” he said. “This is a good, strong market, and we like the reception we get here.”
Alec Rieger, the founder of NextGen:Pgh, who was instrumental in bringing the market to Squirrel Hill, praised the grassroots effort to maintain the market’s hours and extend its season length past Nov. 1.
“The community volunteers and I who are committed to the vision of NextGen:Pgh are deeply gratified that our Squirrel Hill Farmers Market has become such a beloved part of the neighborhood,” said Rieger in an email. “Together with Councilman Corey O’Connor and Citiparks, we’ve laid the groundwork to serve a growing number of residents, local farmers and merchants alike. Sunday mornings have become special in Squirrel Hill. The amazing grassroots effort to maintain the market’s hours of operation and length of season is an eloquent testimony to how important this market has become to thousands of people.”
Another market concept came to Squirrel Hill last Saturday with the introduction of the Squirrel Hill Night Market, an evening of music, shopping, food and art on Murray Avenue between Darlington Road and Bartlett Street. Food trucks were in the parking lot of Citizens Bank, and artists and other vendors displayed their wares on tables set up on the street. A fire-eater was featured among the other entertainers, and thousands of people attended.
The Night Market, which is a project of NextGen:Pgh, Uncover Squirrel Hill and the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, will run again on Sept. 26, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.