SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland Farmers Market, which has struggled to find a footing since its founding in 2011, may soon be headed to its third home in four years.
At a City Council workshop last week, councilors floated the idea of moving the market from Thursday afternoons on Hinckley Drive – for which they must pass a traffic order to shut down the road – to Sundays in either Mill Creek Park, or the parking lot of City Hall.
“Whatever we do, let’s move forward as expediently as possible,” said Councilor Tom Blake. In the two seasons the market has set up shop on Hinckley Drive, the council has complained of feeling rushed to make a decision, due to the matter making its way to their agenda only weeks before the scheduled start of the season.
According to City Manager Jim Gailey, the council should make a ruling on a 2014 market location “within the next 30 to 60 days.” In addition to when and where, a final decision could involve a vote to allow signage, an issue over which the council has clashed before.
“It all hinges on how much effort we want to put into helping them be successful,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott, a sign supporter who was not on the council during the 2012 sign fight.
Blake favored moving the market off Hinckley Drive and into an adjacent space in Mill Creek Park, as did Mayor Jalbert and councilors Linda Cohen and Patti Smith, marking the first time a majority of the council has urged use of the park. City Manager Jim Gailey has resisted the possibility out of fear that vendor carts and increased foot traffic would create a maintenance headache.
“There must be a way we could accommodate that,” said Cohen. “That is a park and that’s what parks are for.”
Meanwhile, Councilor Maxine Beecher said City Hall would make a better spot, at least if used on a weekend day, a change also supported by Smith.
Market manager Caitlin Jordan said the 20-plus vendors who launched the market in 2011 picked Thursdays to avoid a conflict with other markets. Portland’s market runs on Saturday, while Scarborough’s, which Jordan also manages, is on Sunday and many of the vendors frequent the other sites. However, Jordan said only three of the founding vendors are still on the South Portland roster, including her family-run Alewives Brook Farm, based in Cape Elizabeth.
A change of day might be palatable to the current crop of vendors, she said, although she predicted a strong majority would want to remain on Hinckley Drive, or, at the very least, some spot easily accessible from Broadway.
Hinckley Drive was a solution first presented by Mayor Jerry Jalbert, during his first year on the council, as a compromise to settle indecision on the council about whether to allow signage on Broadway directing commuters to the market. Signs were sought after the market’s inaugural season at Thomas Knight Park suffered a steep falloff in traffic following a strong start. Some blamed frequent rain during the summer of 2011 for the low customer count. Others claimed Thomas Knight Park, located in the shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge, was too far off the beaten path, and that the cobblestone walkway there proved more picturesque than practical.
The Hinckley Drive location prompted numerous complaints about how the market impeded the flow of traffic and interfered with local businesses on the main connector between Ocean Street and Cottage Road. In March 2013, for example, David Libby, president and CEO of Town & Country Federal Credit Union, said he fielded more than a dozen customer complaints and at least two threats to cancel accounts because of the market, for which the road in front of the Mill Creek branch was closed every Thursday afternoon from 2-7 p.m.
However, because so much of the traffic tie-up in the Knightville/Mill Creek district during 2012 was linked to a $3.5 million sewer construction project that summer, the council elected to give the market another year to prove itself, while demanding data to justify future use of Hinckley Drive.
That led to a two-part study prepared by Margaret Street resident Ruth Price. An office manager for the Conservation Law Foundation, Price has previous experience as a research analyst and volunteered her time to help the market obtain quantitative data on its operations. Part I of that study, compiled from interviews with 179 market customers during the 2012 summer season, was released in September. Part II, largely compiled from an online survey designed to capture the opinion of South Portland residents who do not frequent the market, was made public last month.
In the September report, 94 percent of respondents favored keeping the market on Hinckley Drive. However, that support shrank to 55 percent in the more recent report, based largely on the 71 percent objection from non-patrons, some of whom remarked that they refuse to frequent the market specifically because they object to the street closure.
However, Price acknowledged that because the survey was not conducted from the true random sample, with respondents either approached at the market – some drawn to a table with a sign urging the to “save our farmers market” – while others self-selected by choosing to take the online survey.
“The result is they tended to have people who had strong opinions either way [for or against the market],” said Price.
Jordan told councilors she would leave it to her fellow vendors to decide if they support a change of venue for the 2014 season, scheduled to kick off in mid-May.
“This has been a thorn in our side for a couple of years now and it’s continuing to take a lot of our time,” said Blake, saying their decision should be the final word on the topic. “I believe we are here to support the farmers market and not dictate to them. They know better than us what is best for them.”
“I have an email out to over 150 farms [but] have only received back a couple of emails,” said Jordan on Monday, when asked for an update. “I figured I would give people a full week to respond and then send what I learned on to the council to decide.”
In 2012, the council made a number of ordinance changes to broaden the allowable locations for a farmers market in South Portland. One benefit of a move out of a public roadway would be the removal of the City Council from the decision-making process.
“If we don’t have to close Hinckley Drive, it really becomes a much simpler process, whereby the market manager can just work things out with the city manager,” said Jalbert.