SOUTH PORTLAND — The city is moving toward allowing the South Portland Farmers Market to continue throughout the winter.
But for many involved in the project, thoughts and concerns are already drifting to next summer.
Vendors say that business at the market at Thomas Knight Park, which opened for the first time on July 14, limped along after a relatively successful first month.
Rainy weather on many Thursdays hasn’t helped, they said. But according to Caitlin Jordan, business manager of Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth and head of the South Portland Farmers Market Association, the less-than-stellar turnout has one root cause.
“Like any business,” she said, “it’s location, location, location.”
Jordan said she is concerned that Thomas Knight Park, beneath the Casco Bay Bridge where Waterman Drive and Ocean Street meet, is just too far removed from the heavier traffic on Broadway, Cottage Road and Ocean Street.
The farmers market began with fanfare this summer, with vendors hoping to peddle their goods to a market hungry for local food and the city hoping the market would revitalize Knightville.
The city paid for road signs, a banner and posters to be distributed throughout the city. Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis dressed as a watermelon when she cut the ribbon on the inaugural Thursday, when hundreds turned out to buy local products.
Sixteen vendors showed up every week, but the crowds didn’t last.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be a struggle for a few years if we stay down in Thomas Knight Park,” Jordan said.
Farmers initially wanted to hold the market on Hinckley Drive, because of its proximity to Mill Creek Park. Jordan said it’s still her hope to eventually move closer to the park, where she says increased traffic will bring more customers.
But De Angelis, who calls herself the market’s “biggest cheerleader,” said Hinckley Drive is out of the question. (The City Council has to approve the location of a farmers market.)
“You’d have to close off traffic completely, and you’d be right in the face of Hannaford, who’s been a great business partner to the city,” De Angelis said. “That’s just not smart.”
De Angelis said she isn’t convinced that the location hurt attendance at the farmers market.
“It’s difficult to say because I go down and talk to the farmers and some say they’d want to move and others say they love it here,” the mayor said. “There’s so many factors. A market doesn’t make itself in one year.”
De Angelis said she’s willing to consider other locations, but that there really aren’t many public places in the city big enough to host a farmers market. Mill Creek Park was taken off the table for fear the market would damage the grass.
While street closures aren’t preferred, De Angelis said she has floated an idea to close the stretch of road where Waterman Drive meets Ocean Street to give the vendors more space and to allow easier access for the elderly and small children, who have struggled on the cobblestones in Thomas Knight Park.
“I would feel sad if the farmers market was not willing to give it another year at Thomas Knight Park,” she said. “We just need to give it some time.”
De Angelis also said she’d like to see the farmers market put in more effort to attract shoppers. She said much more could be done to promote the market, from signs to handbills to newspaper calendars.
“The city supported the farmers market by doing posters, the banner and signs to promote the market,” De Angelis said. “Now there’s a responsibility on the part of the Farmers’ Market Association to begin advertising.”
Melissa Coriaty, chef and owner of Verbena, a cafe on Ocean Street just a short walk from Thomas Knight Park, said its unfair to point all the blame at Knightville.
“It’s too easy to compare it to the Portland market, which has been going on so long,” Coriaty said. “For its first year, I think it’s done well. The main problem has been the weather: it has rained for five out of the last seven Thursdays.”
Coriaty, who is also a vendor at the farmers market, said the business and residential communities in Knightville are happy to have the farmers market in their neighborhood, and that no matter where the market was established, it wouldn’t have been an overnight success.
She also said the market has created more visibility for her business and others in the area.
“If the farmers market is going to work, it needs the continued support of the public, the continued commitment from the vendors and the belief in a positive outcome from everyone involved,” Coriaty said.
While Jordan is concerned about how the location has affected the market, she said she still has hope turnout will improve. She said vendors are working to accept debit and credit cards and SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps.
‘There’s a lot of potential in South Portland,” she said.
The South Portland Farmers Market will continue to operate Thursday afternoons through the end of October. If an ordinance change passes a Town Council second reading on Oct. 26, the first winter market will be held Sunday, Nov. 6, in the old Hamlin School, now the city’s Planning Department, on Ocean Street.