South Portland farmers market struggles to survive

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Six month after holding its inaugural bazaar, the city’s first weekly farmers market is still struggling for customers.

If traffic doesn’t improve, organizers say the market may not survive.

“What that threshold is, I don’t know,” said Caitlin Jordan, of Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth, who manages the market. “We need the support in order to keep coming.”

Though no one is counting heads every week, a survey one Sunday in January tallied about 60 customers at the former Hamlin School at Ocean and Sawyer streets. The market moved there in November in order to stay open all winter. 

“We have 11 vendors,” City Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, a market advocate, said. “If 60 people show up and spend $10 each, that’s only $55 for each vendor. It’s not going to keep them there.”

De Angelis and Jordan both said the attendance recorded in January was likely smaller than usual, but that head counts are still too low to sustain the market indefinitely.

The market opened in July 2011 at Thomas Knight Park after years of planning. Twelve vendors served hundreds of customers the first day, but the inaccessibility of the cobblestoned area where the market was held and weeks of rainy Thursdays drove numbers down as the season went on. 

Some farmers, including Jordan, criticized the city for not allowing the market to operate closer to Mill Creek Park. They said the horn of Waterman Drive, in the shadow of the Casco Bay Bridge, was too far out of sight to generate the customers needed for the market to be sustainable.

De Angelis said the market faces the same problem that forced Bathras Market in Willard Square to close after less than a year of business: residents support the ‘Buy Local’ movement in spirit, but not with their cash. 

“If you’re going to talk about buying local, people need to demonstrate that with their pocketbook,” she said. And, De Angelis doesn’t buy the argument that it’s prohibitively expensive to support local vendors.

“There are prices that are very competitive,” she said. “I get all my milk (at the farmers market). It might be 50 cents more per half gallon, but that’s not enough to turn me away form it. It’s higher quality stuff.”

Jordan is working with the state and city to let vendors accept SNAP, or food stamp, benefits, which she said has been successful in Portland. 

De Angelis is scheduling live music at the market on Feb. 12, writing letters to newspapers to rally support, and travelling as far as Bath to see how other markets and their vendors succeed.

Some of those vendors have told her that increasing the number of stalls will bring more people, she said. But it’s a conundrum: Will bringing more vendors attract more people and increase revenue, or will it simply reduce each vendor’s share of the sales?

De Angelis is convinced to at least give it a shot, but Jordan is skeptical. She said new vendors selling products that aren’t for sale yet in South Portland – organic products, for example – would be risky.

“You can’t throw too many vendors in the mix and hope the customers follow,” Jordan said. “It’s a wonderful concept, but at the end of the day, people have to remember that every single farmer and vendor is trying to make a living.”

With business less than booming this winter, plans are already in the works to ensure the market is as successful as possible when it returns to Knightville in the summer.

The market will move off the cobblestones at Thomas Knight Park and on to the street, where Waterman Drive meets Ocean Street. The cobblestones were a problem for people in wheelchairs, strollers, walkers and even able-bodied people who just had to stand on them. 

The Farmers Market Association will also seek permission to construct a large sign to put at the intersection of Waterman Drive and Broadway to let motorists and passersby know the market will be down the street every Thursday.

Jordan said the sign will be crucial for attracting business.

“People in South Portland have a lifestyle change to make if a farmers market is going to be a weekly routine,” she said. “What we can do is keep reminding people we’re here.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Ex-New Yorker Georgia Donati, left, had only been in South Portland for a day on Sunday, Jan. 29, when she and her daughter went vegetable shopping at the city’s Winter Farmers Market. Customers and vendors alike are working to get word out that the market is indoors at the former Hamlin School, the corner of Ocean Street (Route 77) and Sawyer Street, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.