SOUTH PORTLAND — After failing to come to a consensus, city councilors tabled a proposal to allow the city’s farmers market to build a large sign at the head of Waterman Drive directing traffic to its vendors.
In a workshop Monday, some councilors said allowing what is essentially a for-profit enterprise to build a sign on public property would be inappropriate. They also argue the requested size – 4 feet by 8 feet – is too big.
The council first took up the proposal in a workshop on March 1, but the extra week wasn’t enough to garner support for the sign’s approval.
In the summer, the market takes place at Thomas Knight Park on Thursdays; in winter it’s in the Planning Department building on Ocean Street on Sundays.
The farmers think the sign, directing traffic to the summer market, would help drive customers to vendors. The market has seen business decline since it opened last year, and vendors have long complained about being in Thomas Knight Park, where they say visibility and traffic are low.
Caitlin Jordan of Alewive’s Brook Farm in Cape Elizabeth, who manages the South Portland Farmers Market, said the sign is essential to the survival of the market, which the city has pledged to support.
“The reality is, without getting customers down there in the summer, there’s gonna be no farmers market in 2013,” she said. “I’m having difficulty getting vendors (for this summer), because last year was so horrible.”
City Manager Jim Gailey said city staff, including Code Enforcement Officer Patricia Ducette and Police Chief Ed Googins, didn’t see a problem with having a sign.
Jordan said the farmers don’t expect customers of Portland or Scarborough’s markets will switch to shopping in South Portland, but that a sign would help the city capture the folks who don’t yet buy directly from producers.
The sign, she said, would continue to leave an impression on residents “so they can plan, so they can be reminded, so they can become farmers market customers.”
Councilor Jerry Jalbert said he supports the farmers market, but doesn’t think the city should promote individual private enterprises as a matter of policy. He said he could support a sign with room for various organizations that was more inclusive than a single sign for the farmers market only.
Jordan pointed out that while individual farmers are seeking profit, the South Portland Farmers Market Association is a nonprofit entity. Jalbert said she was splitting hairs.
Councilor Tom Blake asked for a legal opinion, for fear other private groups could seek to place signs on city land based on the precedent of a farmers market sign. Councilors Maxine Beecher and Al Livingston said they weren’t opposed to a sign necessarily, but that they couldn’t vote for a 4-by-8-foot sign; it’s just too big, they said.
“I want us to support the farmers market as much as we can, but I’m just not there yet,” Livingston said.
Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis and Mayor Patti Smith took the council to task, accusing them of supporting the farmers market in words only. They argued that a farmers market contributes to a spirit of community and vitality, which the city should support.
Smith reminded the council that it had voted 7-0 for a Sustainability Initiative that included the farmers market.
“Saying the words and signing off on a resolve is one thing. But doing that thing and walking the walk is far more powerful,” she said.
De Angelis pointed to the numerous towns, including Scarborough, Wells, York and Topsham, that have farmers market signs on public property.
“It’s not really about business,” she said. “It’s about sustainability and what I’d like to think our community represents.”
De Angelis, who has been the most vocal supporter of the farmers market, also took to social media to rally the troops.
“Friends, if you want our Farmers Market to continue in Knightville, please contact Councilors Blake, Jalbert, Beecher and Livingston,” she wrote on Facebook. “We are in desperate need of their support for a sign at the top of Waterman Drive. Urge them to support us.”
Georgia Donati, left, visits the South Portland Farmers Market at the former Hamlin School on Ocean Street on Sunday, Jan. 29.