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BRUNSWICK — To the casual observer, the two colossal, aging freight barns sitting off Union Street might look like just another example of small-town blight.
But to Maina Handmaker, and a growing team of supporters, they are a golden opportunity to show Brunswick’s dedication to local food, art and community.
Their dream is the Brunswick FoodShed, a year-round farmers market and community space to be housed in the buildings.
Handmaker, 25, is the group’s executive director. She has planning the FoodShed since 2009, when, as a Bowdoin College student, she contemplated the buildings from an architecture class on the third floor of the McLellan Building, now Brunswick’s Town Hall.
Her idea was to restore the buildings, which date back to the early 20th century, to house the twice-weekly Brunswick Farmers Market held on the mall downtown, and to host community events and classes in the space.
“It would be incredible to have a permanent home that shows off the support Brunswick has for its farmers market,” Handmaker said.
The two buildings, owned by Gary Brooks, who runs Brooks Feed and Farm Supplies, will be designed so vendors can set up stalls, and outfitted with electricity and bathroom facilities
The buildings are intended to offer protection from the elements, but the design is flexible enough to allow in plenty of light and air, and to feature outdoor space for times when people would rather shop and sell outside.
The goal is to get the downtown farmers market off the mall and into a new, permanent space, Handmaker said.
While the town has long supported the weekly market, it is looking to reclaim the public space and relieve some of the parking congestion it can produce.
The FoodShed would also greatly expand available space for vendors, possibly doubling the 15 now permitted at the downtown market, Handmaker said. The plan is also to have two anchor tenants to help pay operating costs.
It could also become the future home for the winter farmers market, held in Fort Andross, and possibly the Saturday Crystal Springs market, on Pleasant Hill Road.
When it isn’t filled with vendors, the FoodShed can host events and classes, Handmaker added; the goal is to have the building in continuous use.
She has pursued the project by fits and starts since 2011, but until last year it never got much beyond a rough proposal, Handmaker admitted.
Initially the idea met with limited enthusiasm, which Handmaker partially attributed to farmers’ unfamiliarity with her.
“I don’t blame them, they thought I would write a paper and just go away,” Handmaker said.
But after immersing herself in the local food and farming community over the last few years by working full time at Six River Farm in Bowdoinham, Handmaker has built relationships and trust, leading others to take her commitment to the project more seriously.
“They know I’m not going anywhere,” Handmaker said.
The FoodShed project now has a full board of directors stocked with representatives from local food and conservation groups, an advisory committee, and a design team.
The group recently launched a new website, and the project is sponsored by the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, so it can take donations as it attains its own nonprofit status. Handmaker said she intends to start working fewer hours on the farm in the coming season so she can focus on the FoodShed.
While there is momentum behind the project, it is still in its infancy – there is a traffic study to complete, a Planning Board proposal to get through, and design plans to finish, not to mention finalizing a lease for the buildings.
After that, there’s fundraising. An initial feasibility study pegged the cost at $1.5 million, and Handmaker hopes to have an updated projection by the end of December. Supporters hope to fund the project with a mix of donations and grants.
Turning to construction, Handmaker said the group plans to rehabilitate the smaller barn, which “still has a lot of life left in it.” But there is no final plan for the larger building, which has more structural problems.
The group is learning towards tearing down the larger barn and rebuilding it with reclaimed materials in a way that “pays homage” to the original structure, Handmaker said.
In a presentation at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick last week, she estimated that a portion of the FoodShed could be open by winter 2016.
While the project is ambitious, Handmaker is confident that the Brunswick community can get behind it. A similar project in neighboring Bath, the Bath Freight Shed Alliance, is now moving into its third year hosting a winter market.
“There are a lot of precedents out there of turning around old barns,” Handmaker noted. “There should be a lot of support in Brunswick for saving a historic structure.”
Maina Handmaker outside the future Brunswick FoodShed off Union Street on Tuesday afternoon.
A plan to convert these two freight sheds into a year-round farmers market, art and event space is gaining momentum within the Brunswick community.