SOUTH PORTLAND – The April 17 vote of the South Portland City Council to close Hinckley Drive for this summer’s farmers market was doubly unanimous – all councilors present voted for it, but none of them seemed to like it.
What’s more, most councilors signaled they would be unlikely to vote for use of the street next again next year.
“Shutting off a street isn’t the way most farmers markets work,” said Councilor Gerard Jalbert, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Mayor Tom Blake. “This is a really unique situation. We’re using public property at what amounts to no charge for prime real estate and at the same time we are creating some level of inconvenience.”
On April 9, the Planning Board gave the market, set to enter its third year, a special exception permit to operate on Hinckley Drive with as many as 25 vendors. However, it took a vote of the City Council to authorize closing the road from 2-8 p.m. on Thursdays, from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Following the 6-0 vote, the market will be open from 3-7 p.m., between Ocean Street and the Hinckley Drive entrance to People’s United Bank.
“I do support the farmers market,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “I think they’re important for any community to have, but I do not support the location.”
Saying, “I trust staff,” Cohen reminded her fellow councilors that at a March 18 special meeting, City Manager Jim Gailey had cautioned against allowing the market back on Hinckley Drive for a second season. Although only one member of the business community – Town & Country Credit Union President David Libby – had complained publicly before the council, Gailey said he’d heard from “a number of businesses” who felt the market negatively impacted traffic in the Knightville district last year. Gailey’s assessment was backed by five department heads – from transportation, planning, fire, police, code enforcement and recreation – all of whom expressed variations on the theme that allowing the market back on Hinckley Drive would be “less than ideal.”
The one member of the public to speak at the April 17 meeting held a contrary view, however. Portland resident Amber Roberge, owner of On the Move Fitness, located on Ocean Street, near the market location, called Hinckley Drive “the ideal place for people to congregate.” When people gather on market days at the site, located adjacent to the duck pond in Mill Creek Park, it paints “a Norman Rockwell portrait of a community,” she said.
Playing on that vision, Jalbert echoed Blake, who has frequently said he’d like to move the market off the street and into the park.
“But I don’t think I’m going to get my way,” said Jalbert, alluding to the fact that Gailey has been even more adamantly opposed to that option than to Hinckley Drive.
Cohen pointed out that in March the council opened up ordinance restrictions, allowing the market to operate on public or private property in more than 20 zoning districts.
“There’s hardly any place left on the map that isn’t OK for a farmers market,” she said, suggesting a preference for almost any other location.
Still, in the end, Cohen voted for closing Hinckley Drive, only doing so, she said, because its May 2 opening day is right around the corner.
“If this was January, my vote would probably be different because there would still be plenty of time to work out another location,” she said. “But we’re about to burst into spring and I’d hate to hold up the farmers.”
Councilor Melissa Linscott, who has a real estate office in Knightville, said she “honestly doubts” if it’s worth closing Hinckley Drive, which she ordinarily travels “four to 10 times a day.”
At the very least, Linscott said, signage is needed to warn motorists entering Hinckley Drive from Cottage Road that on Thursdays it is closed off just above the line of sight from the intersection.
“We do need to do a better job of stopping people before they make that turn,” agreed Gailey, noting the number of U-turns observed last year.
Councilor Alan Livingston said he remains concerned about closing a “main thoroughfare” in the downtown district. However, he said the market “did not get a fair shot” to prove its worth last year, given road construction in the area that lasted almost the entire season.
“Last year was a mess,” he said. “I think we owe it to the market to make it happen, this year at least, although I’m not 100 percent convinced we should do this again next year.”
Even if the market does not turn potential customers away from businesses in the area on Thursday, Councilor Patti Smith predicted it could still have an adverse affect on public transportation, causing the bus system to lose riders due to occasional closure of the Hinckley Drive stop.
Smith, voted for the street closure, although, she said, her “heart is really not in it.” Among councilors, Smith leveled the strongest critique at the market.
“I am disappointed with the location,” she said. “I am disappointed with the process. I’m disappointed with the timing.
“I think as a city we could do a lot better,” said Smith. “We’re going to be at it for another year where it appears like we are fumbling around.”