New Portland flea market tied up in red tape

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PORTLAND — An amendment to the city code governing flea markets that was intended to streamline the licensing process may make it harder for a new flea market to attract vendors.

The measure is scheduled for a City Council vote on June 4.

Erin Kiley and Nathaniel Baldwin opened the Portland Flea For All at 125 Kennebec St. in mid-April. In August 2010, when they were in the early stages of planning the business, they approached the city to find out what licenses they and their vendors would need, and at what cost.

They found that the city’s current rule requires vendors who sell goods at flea markets to obtain a license from the city, at a cost of $20 plus a $35 processing fee, but only if the vendors participate in more than five flea markets a year.

The budding entrepreneurs were told there was no business license or associated fee required for flea market operators, Kiley said. They were also told in an email from Alexandra Murphy, then the city’s business license administrator, that the city would waive the processing fee, and charge only $20 for the dealer’s license. The pair devised their business plan under those assumptions, Kiley said.

“We never envisioned the sort of trouble that we’ve been having,” Kiley said.

A year and a half later, on Feb. 2, 2012, the Flea For All had finally secured a lease on the former Asia West showroom in the Bayside neighborhood, and Kiley sent Murphy another email to confirm that the city would not charge their vendors the $35 processing fee.

The response from the city clerk’s office, where personnel had turned over in the interim, was that the city would indeed charge the processing fee. The clerk’s office also indicated that as a flea market operators, Kiley and Baldwin would have to pay $50 for each day that they opened the market, as per the current city code.

And while vendors selling crafts that they made themselves needed no license and paid no application fee, those selling antiques or used goods need would have to get a $225 second-hand dealer’s license on top of the flea market dealer’s license.

To Kiley and Baldwin, the fees seemed prohibitive; the rules were seemingly written to prevent a regular flea market from gaining a foothold in the city, they said. At a cost of $50 a day, it would cost the business $5,000 a year in city operator’s fees alone.

They were also unhappy that the city clerk’s office had chosen not to uphold its previous decision to forgo the processing fee. 

Their business model was an update on the traditional flea market, and seemed to them a perfect fit for Portland’s arts-centric economy. The Flea For All would take place each Saturday and Sunday, hosting a select, rotating group of artists, crafters, and discriminating antiques and second-hand dealers that Kiley and Baldwin had approved from a pool of applications.

But they feared that the licensing fee, and the five-day waiting period to pick up a flea market dealer’s license after applying, would keep some vendors away. Other flea markets in the state are less expensive, and some of their vendors are from places like Hollis and Lincoln, too far away to make the trip just to pick up a flea market dealer’s license appealing.

From the city clerk’s office’s perspective, there was another reason to change the current code: it requires the flea market operator to report the names and addresses of every participating vendor within three days of an event, so that the office can track the number of appearances each vendor makes and ensure that they got licenses after hitting the five-market milestone.

It amounted to an administrative nightmare, said city attorney Gary Wood, who later became involved in the debate along with the city’s economic development office.

“It certainly suggests to me that we didn’t get into too much licensing under that provision,” Wood said.

As conversations about streamlining the process and keeping costs down for the flea market and its vendors continued between the two sides, the City Hall gravitated towards changes that city attorneys proposed.

Some are agreeable to both parties: the flea market operator’s license would be $50 a day or a flat annual $225 fee, the processing fee could be waived, and the definition of second-hand sellers would be revised so that flea market vendors wouldn’t need that license.

But one change actually increases the challenge of attracting vendors, Kiley said: the proposal would require that all flea market sellers get a license, complete with the five-day waiting period, before ever doing business at the Flea For All.

At times, the dialogue “got really nasty,” Kiley said. In a Public Safety, Health, and Human Services Committee meeting on May 17, staff from the clerk’s office accused Kiley and Baldwin of being incapable and unwilling to keep track of how many days vendors participate in their flea market, Kiley said.

The four City Councilors on the committee voted unanimously to send the proposed amendment to the full council with their recommendation.

It seems difficult to understand why its a big deal, Kiley said, but when she and Baldwin surveyed their vendors, the majority said they would not have participated in the market if they had had to get the license straight away.

The amendment “still doesn’t address the issue where (vendors) want to go in and sell right off,” said City Councilor David Marshall, who sits on the Public Safety committee.

“There’s the sense that if we don’t do something we’re going to end up putting the business out,” Marshall said.

Marshall said he is considering making a further amendment when the proposal goes before the City Council on June 4, he said, to allow the Flea For All to complete all monetary transactions at the market. Under his amendment, vendors could be present at the flea market to interact with customers, but wouldn’t have to get a seller’s license, Marshall said.

The flea market’s second floor already acts as a consignment shop, so they would be able to complete transactions for other vendors too, he said. That would allow vendors to test the market and decide if it is worth the effort of obtaining a seller’s license, Marshall said.

While the council’s vote is a week away, Kiley isn’t convinced that the proposed amendment is the best one possible.

“Ultimately, we want to sit down with the clerk’s office to figure out a way to reduce their administrative burden without it being an economic burden on us,” she said.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Erin Kiley, left, and Nathaniel Baldwin, say their vintage and arts and crafts-focused flea market at the former Asia West showroom building at 125 Kennebec St. in Portland, is threatened by a change in city licensing requirements.