BRADENTON BEACH – Manatee County commissioners debated the county’s takeover of the Coquina Beach Market last week as vendors defended ousted organizer Nancy Ambrose.
The beach market saga began publicly on Aug. 2 when, in a press release, Manatee County Information Director Bill Logan announced that the county would take over the market from Ambrose.
At an Aug. 18 county commission land use meeting, Commissioner Carol Whitmore voiced her opposition.
“I think this needs to be decided by the board if we’re going to do this,” Whitmore said. “I don’t believe in the board interfering with the private sector in this. I don’t want to run a market.” The issue arose again on Sept. 13 when Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) gave an update to the board.
“For many months, the county administrator has been going through an optimization process organizationally allowing certain positions to gain more responsibility bandwidth,” Falcione said. “This additional bandwidth gives an expertise and oversight ability to operate the beach market at the county-owned park, allowing the proceeds to go to the community.”
Falcione said one market objective is to provide tourists and residents what he called a unique beach market experience that complements the current assets on Anna Maria Island. He also characterized the county-run market as a source of revenue for the proposed water taxi initiative.
Falcione said the county-run market will begin on Nov. 1 and run through July 27, 2023 on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Thursdays from 3-8 p.m. He said there will be about 100 vendors, with a different set of vendors each of the two days.
“We stand ready to move this forward,” he said. “We’re ready to roll.”
Whitmore voiced her opposition to the idea of a county-run market.
“I can’t believe this board would actually want to run a business and take it away from the private sector,” she said, adding, “We’re not in the world here to have a business.”
Whitmore added, “This is probably going to get passed – it has been rammed through already.”
Commission Chairman Kevin Van Ostenbridge voiced his support for the county-run market.
“This is a taxpayer asset being monetized by someone else and the taxpayer is receiving very little in return,” Van Ostenbridge said. “We’re now using that asset to fund a water taxi to lower the number of cars by moving the same number of people hopefully out to the Island.”
Commenting on the water taxis, Whitmore said, “We couldn’t get anybody to bid on it so I hear we’re buying the water taxis and we’ll pay ourselves back. Who gave that authority to do that?”
Commissioner Misty Servia said she could have supported the county-run market, but the proper process was not followed.
“This should have come to the board to ask the board what they wanted to do before the administrator made all of these plans to run the market in a different way,” Servia said.
Vendors weigh in
Van Ostenbridge then opened the floor to citizen comments.
Several Coquina Beach Market vendors who worked under Ambrose’s oversight of the market spoke about her in glowing terms.
“Nancy worked around the clock to provide us a beautiful work environment,” said Amanda Champ, characterizing Ambrose as the vendors’ biggest advocate.
“Nancy was the matriarch of this beach market,” Champ said. “There are many people that love her.”
Vendor Victoria Dargan said, “I have been honored to have been part of the market for the last six years. It’s been run as the best market I’ve ever seen and to have it taken away from Nancy and this shift is very difficult for us to accept.”
Dargan said that changing the days of the market and losing Sundays will negatively impact her livelihood, along with many others.
“We don’t even know right now who’s going to be accepted (in the new market),” she said.
Jean McDonald, a self-described small family business vendor, called the market a consistent safe space in which she generated income.
“That woman has the highest integrity,” McDonald said of Ambrose. “The market is a community of hardworking individuals from all walks of life. Nancy played a huge role in the success of our business.”
Ambrose is currently looking at other market venue options.
A Facebook page, “Where is the Market?” has garnered 1,200 members – many of whom are vendors who have worked with Ambrose and are expressing loyalty and a willingness to follow her to a new venue.