Pasco Flea Market becomes 'traffic nightmare'

By Kristi Pihl, Herald staff writerApril 12, 2010 

PASCO — Sunday traffic around the Pasco Flea Market is a testament to the market's success -- and to the headache it's causing for city officials.

The flea market, started in 1987 on East Lewis Place, is at capacity, said Mitch Nickolds, Pasco inspection services manager.

Flea market owner Bill Robinson calls the Sunday crowd, which can be around 2,500 people at one time, the "church rush," and admits, "It's a traffic nightmare for three hours."

The heaviest traffic is between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays, Nickolds said. Cars back up on the street waiting to enter the market's packed parking lot and create a traffic jam.

Nickolds said the city doesn't want to limit the flea market's ability to expand, but it has to look out for the residents who live near the flea market and other road users. Nearby residents need to be able to enter and leave their properties, and that can be difficult with the lines of traffic.

Robinson said 3,000 to 5,000 people may visit the market on Sundays. Most of them are Hispanic, and the vendors who are at the market cater to the crowd with wares aimed at the diverse crowd.

Last year, the market expanded to Saturday sessions. Robinson said he hoped that would reduce some of the Sunday crowd and would give vendors that he doesn't have room for on Sundays a chance to sell their wares.

The market is open March 1 to Dec. 1.

Robinson has hired flaggers to direct traffic where Heritage Boulevard intersects with East Lewis Place. This year, he increased flaggers to three outside the market and four inside.

Nickolds said the flaggers have helped alleviate some of the traffic issues. The city also reconfigured the Heritage Boulevard intersection, and Robinson added an offsite parking lot for vendors and employees.

Even with the recent changes, the 500-space parking lot is often full, especially on nice days when people stay longer at the market, Robinson said. When that happens, his staff puts up a sign that tells people to try back in a couple hours.

The packed parking lot has caused other problems in the area, and two years ago the city decided to post "No parking" signs on Lewis Place after street parking created issues.

Nickolds said the sheer volume of traffic going to and from the flea market has also attracted illegal vendors along East Lewis Place. They park on vacant lots alongside the road and try to sell items to those waiting to get into the market.

Often, those vendors are trespassing, Nickolds said, and they are taking business that might have gone to the market's vendors.

Robinson is considering adding another parking lot, but purchasing the land and making improvements to it would cost about $1 million, he said. That's a lot of 75-cent entry fees.

When Robinson and his wife, Sheree, started the flea market 23 years ago to pay for their college tuition, about 30 vendors attended each Sunday. Now, Robinson said, the average is 350, which is the maximum.

The market also has grown from five acres to 20, with seven acres for the actual market and the rest for parking, Robinson said.

Part of the issue stems from the flea market being on a dead-end street. Robinson thinks connecting East Lewis Place to A Street and adding a second way to and from the market could be a solution.

But Nickolds said the city wouldn't be able to put in the street because it lacks a right of way across private property the street would need to go through. The market could add a private road, though.

Nickolds said the city could make extension of Lewis Place and a second entrance into the market a condition for the market to expand. Robinson would have to pay for the extension should that happen.

Over the years, the flea market has become a successful family business. Robinson's son Kyle, 20, helps run the business side of the market. And son Alex, 18, daughter Rachel, 25, nephew Thomas Lancon, 21, sister-in-law Julie Campos, and Sheree's mother, Sherry Lancon, all help keep the market going.

Robinson said the market also has unintentionally served as an incubator for small businesses. He's seen businesses start in the market and then move to a storefront in downtown Pasco.

People enjoy the market for an outing, Robinson said. There are few places where families can go, buy something to eat and go home with groceries and only spend about $20. Children get in for free, and adults 16 and over pay 75 cents each.

The market, which is billed as the largest open air flea market in Eastern Washington, mixes U.S. and Mexican products. The wares are mostly practical items that Mexican immigrants might recognize from the weekly market days common in their homeland.

"It's the cheapest trip you'll ever have to Mexico," Robinson said.

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