2012-08-03 / Front Page

Market needs help, say critics

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND - The South Portland Farmers Market is not technically in its first year of existence, but market Manager Caitlin Jordan said she is treating it like a new market and as with any new business there will always be growing pains.

The market ran last summer out of Thomas Knight Park, where vendors said business was very slow. Then, after a long debate among farmers and city officials that lasted through the winter and much of the spring, the location was moved to Hinckley Road beside Mill Creek Park.

Jordan said the market is “going as a new market should” with a new location and mostly new vendors.

“Last week alone we did twice (the sales) as what we’ve been doing the weeks before,” Jordan said.

But City Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, who pushed for the market to move to the Hannaford parking lot on Cottage Road near the intersection of Hinckley Drive, said despite the move to the center of town, the market still appears to be “dying.”

De Angelis said she tries to visit the market every Thursday afternoon to support vendors, but she has noticed little foot traffic. The problem, she said, is one not necessarily born out of location but rather out of marketing.

Hinckley Drive is located in the center of downtown South Portland and is heavily trafficked in the afternoons with commuters passing Mill Creek Park on Ocean Street, Cottage Road and Broadway. But De Angelis said, “The problem with the drive-by concept is people are on their way to or from someplace,” and they’re not necessarily going to stop at the market on their commute from work to home.

But despite the slow start, Jordan remains optimistic about the prospects of the market.

“Like any start-up business, you’ve got to push through that first year, maybe the second year and then hope to profit in year three. You’ve got to be thinking long term,” she said.

Bob Neal, who owns the Turkey Farm in New Sharon and began participating in the South Portland market last summer, said he has seen steady growth over the course of the year he has been involved in the market.

“It’s picking up for us. It’s a significantly better site than where we were last year,” Neal said. “The growth is good and the potential is good. South Portland is a really nicely diverse group of people. It’s a much younger crowd than you sometimes get at a farmers market.”

But Neal said the growth he has seen will have to steadily continue if his farm is going to stick with the South Portland market. Despite the positive signs, he said his stand still sells less than its goal most times out, and that will have to change by fall. Neal did not say exactly how much longer he was willing to go on without meeting his sales goals, but he did say that he gets “really busy on the farm” starting around September, and without further progress he would have to consider “pulling the plug” sometime in the fall before his busy Thanksgiving season.

Phil Gray, who runs the Blue Dragon Mussel Wagon out of Harpswell, wasn’t willing to wait that long. He came to the market when it began this season in May, but after a slow week over the Fourth of July, when he said he’s usually busy, he decided to stop making the 80-mile trip from his home to South Portland. Gray is one of two vendors who have dropped out this season, along with Bubier Farms in Greene.

“It was just slow from the start,” Gray said. “There’s a lot of verbal support of the farmers market and buying local; people have to adjust their shopping habits and put their money where their mouth is.”

Gray said there were a number of factors that led up to his decision. One was the construction in Mill Creek Park, which he thinks cut down on foot traffic to the area and “kind of eliminated people coming down to the pond just to walk around.”

Gray also said the city was “dragging its feet” in supporting the market. He went through a long process to file insurance paperwork, and said it was hard for the market to put up signs because of city ordinances.

However, Gray did add that he believes the market will ultimately succeed in South Portland given more time.

Jordan said it is tough for a seafood vendor like Gray to succeed at a market in an area with so many local seafood options. Many people may be used to buying seafood in Portland or Cape Elizabeth, she said, “Whereas, if you go further north or inland, having a seafood vendor would be huge because it’s not so readily available.”

One thing De Angelis and Jordan agreed on was the need for the market to increase its visibility.

“It doesn’t have a very inviting feel to it. You come to either end of the street and there’s a big barricade,” De Angelis said, and some people don’t know the reason for the blocked-off streets.

Jordan said she has heard many customers tell her how much they love the location by the park, but she hoped the city could help expedite the process to allow her to put up more signs. Most of all, Jordan said, the market needs a little time to change residents’ shopping habits.

“You still see so many new faces come through,” she said. “But it’s getting people to come back week after week. They’re not making it a weekly routine yet.”

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