SOUTH PORTLAND – Following an hour-long debate Monday night, the South Portland City Council narrowly rejected an offer by Hannaford supermarkets to host a local farmers market in its Mill Creek parking lot, agreeing instead to place the troubled showcase on Hinckley Drive during its sophomore season.
However, Monday’s 5-2 vote only closes the busy Knightville street to traffic from 2-8 p.m. on Thursdays, from May 10 to Oct. 1. Actually allowing vendors to set up shop in the roadway will require a special exemption to zoning rules in the “limited business” district – a waiver that can only be issued by the Planning Board. That vote was scheduled for Tuesday evening, after the deadline for this week’s print edition of The Current.
Meanwhile, some farmers who pulled out of the market due to the level of discourse leading up to Monday’s vote have taken up an offer from the Maine Mall to stage an alternative market there, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Tuesdays. According to City Manager Jim Gailey, ordinance language crafted when the council created the South Portland Farmers Market Association last spring will have to be amended before the cross-town option can open for business, even though it will operate independently from the downtown market association.
“We’re still working though the details with the city, getting all of our ducks in a row with the licensing and ordinance changes required,” Rochelle Zawaduk, business development manager for mall owner General Growth Properties, said on Tuesday.
Although a farmers market failed at the mall in 2005, Zawaduk said, a new management team is in place at the mall, including a new marketing director, and an advertising campaign is being geared to a May 29 opening in conjunction with the mall’s summer-long “healthy living” initiative.
The mall market, pegged for the “festival lot” at the corner of Gorham Road and Philbrook Avenue, will feature live music and children’s events, said Zawaduk.
“We want to be bring in more of the community and be a part of the community,” said Zawaduk. “We have a farmers market program that is a big part of our company at our other locations, so why not have one in Maine? It’s the perfect place.”
According to Caitlin Jordan, who manages the Hinckley Drive market, the mall approached her group in March, shortly after news broke that farmers wanted to move out of its original location in Thomas Knight Park, in hope of attracting a wider audience.
Jordan has said about half of the vendors lost money during the market’s inaugural season. Although there were several mitigating factors, including rain on many market dates, the conventional wisdom held that the venue itself was to blame, partly because of cobblestones that made patronage tough on older residents, and partly because the park itself was deemed too far off the beaten path.
Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, who championed creation of the market during her term as mayor, tried to rectify that situation at a Feb. 28 council workshop. In addition to brokering a deal to pull the market off the cobblestones and onto Waterman Drive, she asked the council to approve a large promotional sign on Broadway. However, some on the council, most pointedly Jerry Jalbert, blocked that effort, saying it would send a poor signal to area businesses if the council were to appear to support some forms of commerce over others.
Instead, he suggested a move to Hinckley Drive, next to Mill Creek Park. That idea was seized upon by Jordan, prompting a flurry of emails that prospective vendor Pamela Harwood, of Longwoods Alpaca Farm in Cumberland, described as a “turf war.” Harwood eventually withdrew her application, citing the “incivility” of the discourse, as did Kathy Shaw, of Valley View Farm in Auburn.
At about the same time, Jordan said, the farmers dismissed the mall offer. The Hinckley Drive site, adjacent to Mill Creek Park, was deemed preferable to one stranded in a sea of asphalt, she said. In her resignation letter, Harwood, who works markets in Cumberland and Falmouth, announced her intent to pursue the mall offer.
Meanwhile, as Jalbert caucused his fellow councilors, reporting to De Angelis that he “had the votes” for Hinckley, Bob O’Brien resigned from the advisory committee, which never got a chance to weigh in on the question.
“Quite frankly, I do not wish to serve on a committee that is ineffective or uninformed about matters critical to the organization it advises,” he wrote on March 22.
Market issues did not return a council agenda until April 23 – Mayor Patti Smith said the issue had to take a back seat to more pressing demands of the city’s annual budget. By that time, all momentum had shifted to Hinckley Drive, even though, as Knightville Neighborhood Association Chairwoman Leah Lipmann noted, it had been considered and rejected when the market was created last year for having “too many issues,” including too little public parking and too many wild ducks.
When the Hannaford option arose, farmers rejected that idea, as well. Jordan said Monday that of the 17 vendors who have signed up for this year’s market, 14 voted via email April 29. “All but three,” she said, wanted to stick with Hinckley Drive.
“Mostly, it’s an issue of the visibility factor,” she explained. “We want to be seen from the major [Broadway] intersections. There’s also a desire to be as close to Mill Creek Park as we can, for ambiance, to feed that whole farmer setting.”
Still, Smith moved to amend Monday’s order to name the market’s time and place, from Hinckley to Hannaford.
“The parking lot tends to be, to me, a safer location,” she said.
However, David Orbeton, whose knife-sharpening business is one of the few South Portland-based booths in the market, said a parking lot is no place for a market.
“There is no atmosphere and no room to grow there,” he said. “If we are in a mediocre location, we will get a mediocre market, which will just fade away in a few years.”
Orbeton also said that by being on the street, the market traffic would benefit more Knightville businesses that Hannaford.
“They’re not stupid,” he said, after the meeting, “that’s the only reason they want us in their parking lot.”
Smith’s motion failed 4-3.
“I don’t like everything regarding Hinckley, but I think that offers them their greatest chance of success,” said Councilor Alan Livingston, who cast the deciding vote.
That drew a stern rebuke from De Angelis.
“We have to remember what got us here, this idea that we cannot favor the farmers market over other businesses,” she said. “By putting them on Hinckley Drive, we are doing exactly that. We are saying to Hannaford, one of the best corporate business partners in this city, we are going to close off the main entryway to their business for six hours every Thursday, for no good reason.”
After the amendment failed, City Manager Jim Gailey pointed out that the hour-long debate may have been moot, given the ordinance change required to allow an farmers market on private property. That appeared to sway Councilor Tom Blake, who switched to the majority, making the final vote for Hinckley Drive 5-2.
On Tuesday, Harwood declined to discuss the Knightville market run by Jordan, but acknowledged helping the mall line up an alternative group.
“I was intrigued by the idea of a Maine Mall location, so I put the word out to farms and craftsman,” she said. “So far, we have 13 or 14 vendors interested.”
The Tuesday hours, she said, are meant to target workers in the mall area who might visit on their lunch breaks. Local farmers, she said, need as many outlets as possible.
“I don’t see us as being a competing market at all,” said Harwood. “The key is to give people as many alternatives as possible. And people are getting the message. They want real, local food and not the genetically-modified cardboard that’s been foisted on them.”