FOOD FIGHT: Farmers market stays put for now
BERLIN – The Berlin Farmers' Market won’t be moving any time soon or at least until the end of December, following a great outcry Monday night from supporters and vendors who opposed the town’s attempt to relocate the market to the edge of town.
When the subject was broached at the Town Council meeting, it was met by a huge gathering of farmers market supporters, who lambasted the Chamber of Commerce for, or so they thought, coming up with the idea of moving the market to Stephen Decatur Park and Dr. William Henry Park next to Route 113.
The chamber, however, was just the messenger in this affair, having been asked by the mayor and council to take the lead on what officials have determined is a downtown parking problem caused by the market’s presence in the parking lot it operates on, off North Main Street.
The market, which has existed in downtown Berlin for 19 years, occupies that lot every Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the offseason, along with Wednesdays during the in-season.
According to Elaine Brady, president of the chamber's Board of Directors (and publisher of this newspaper) the mayor and council were concerned about parking availability in the downtown area, especially during the upcoming month-long Victorian Christmas event.
"People are not able to find parking in town, so they end up leaving instead of shopping. The town wanted to make more spaces available," Brady said in an interview before Monday’s meeting.
Because the lot used by the market is owned by the town, and officials have no authority over private lots such as the large parking area across the street from the market, space was approved by the town for members of the farmers market to set up at the two local parks. That would free 25 additional downtown parking spaces during market days.
But public uproar began soon after the chamber sent a letter to members of the famers market on Friday, Oct. 12, informing farmers of the plan to move.
"After a meeting with the town officials on Oct. 10, 2012, we have decided that the [Berlin] Farmers Market has outgrown their current location," said the letter from Aaren Collins, executive director of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce. The letter said Nov. 16 would be the last day the market would operate at its current location.
In the letter, a meeting was scheduled on Friday in Town Hall to discuss the move. That meeting was cancelled by the farmers.
In the meantime, market vendors set up a Facebook page called "Save Your Downtown Berlin Farmers Market" as part of a campaign to raise public awareness.
"We were never given any notice by anyone in town or consulted by the chamber," Paul Wood, owner of A & W Farms and longtime market participant, said in an interview last Thursday.
"They just aren't good locations for us to have a market. We would likely lose 50 percent of business, or more," he said.
Wood said the Stephen Decatur Park spot is not viable because it is not in the town's center, not clearly visible from the highway, and few cars generally travel through Tripoli Street, the road adjacent to the park.
Concerning Henry Park, Wood said it is too far away from the downtown area and unsafe to walk across Route 113.
Posters displaying the same title of the Facebook page were printed and prominently displayed during the market sale on Friday. Members also asked owners of numerous Berlin stores to display the sign in their window if they are in support of the market staying downtown. Many businesses have obliged the request.
Wood said a similar situation occurred in Salisbury years ago when a farmers market there was forced to move from the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center to a less populated location. After the move, Wood said sales were so poor, he had to leave that farmers market.
A pamphlet was also handed out to the public that asked market supporters to voice their opinions to Berlin officials at Monday’s council meeting.
That they did, with many wearing T-shirts embroidered with the words "Save Your Downtown Berlin Farmers Market."
The standing-room-only crowd spilled outside the entrance to the chambers, as audience members held forth on the topic for more than two hours.
When the motion to relocate the market came into discussion, Collins and Brady were called on to make the request.
"We felt once they [the farmers] met with us, they would feel the same enthusiasm," said Brady in her introduction.
Brady then explained why she believed the move is a positive change.
She said with the installation of the market at Henry Park on Flower Street, the farmers would be able to provide their fresh produce to residents east of Route 113. There is ample parking at both parks, she said, and because there is a playground area at both locations, each spot would be safer for consumers with children.
In addition, Brady said that because each park is directly off the highway, it would introduce the market to a new and larger customer base.
Brady said the chamber would erect signs at the previous location informing the public of the move as well as at both parks so people traveling on Route 113 could clearly see each market location.
Once Brady finished, Mayor Gee Williams explained to the audience why the town wants the move.
"We started getting complaints about spaces last year," Williams said.
Town Administrator Tony Carson added that there is no parking to be had d0wntown on Friday at noon, an assertion that drew howls from the crowd.
"The whole purpose of a market is to bring people into town," resident Bob McIntosh said. "I'm not going to drive to a remote location."
"I'm looking at it as an opportunity to grow the market," Councilwoman Lisa Hall said.
But Kim Holloway, who has been shopping at the farmers market for 10 years, countered that expansion is not necessarily a good thing.
"I don't want to see 200 varieties of tomatoes," Holloway said, to the audience's applause.
Patty Falck, owner of Ta Da, told the council that she routinely sees customers coming into her shop with bags of produce. Falck then read a letter written by her daughter, Blair Parsons.
"Many out-of-towners would not have found the market if it was not downtown," Parsons wrote.
Wood then reminded the mayor and council it was originally town officials who asked the farmers to come to the downtown area to revitalize it.
"All members want to stay downtown," he said.
Carrie Bennett, owner of Bennett Orchards and a member of the farmers market, said she has researched the best market strategies and only locations in town centers are viable.
She gave an example of one market in Delaware failing the year it was moved off the highway from the town center, while another market in a nearby town still flourishes next to its town hall.
"We are not in fear of change; we are in favor of tradition," she said.
Sue Wood, Paul's wife of A & W Farms, brought a letter written by Earl Hance, secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
His letter said that as there is a growing demand for these markets, it is key to place farmers markets near the town center.
When the discussion turned back to the town's parking issue, the audience requested parking on West Street and that the town put signs up to inform prospective customers of additional parking on Baker Street.
Market supporters also suggested that if the town is intent on moving the market off the parking lot that it allow it to occupy a side street closer to the middle of town.
Addressing another aspect of the operation, Farmers market member Terry Jordan of Longridge Gardens said that contrary to some rumors, that the market does not exclude some farm vendors because of favoritism.
Jordan said either a member of the chamber or the market or she will visit an applicant to see if it meets their standards.
Of the 15 farms selling at the market, five are located in Worcester County, with three of those farms in the immediate area. Seven farms operate in Maryland, but outside Worcester County, while three farms are in Delaware.
Despite a request from Sue Wood to rescind the motion to move the farmers market, the council agreed to table the discussion for two months, ensuring the market will stay at its current location until at least until the end of December.
Williams encouraged the Berlin Chamber of Commerce and Berlin Farmers Market to work together to develop a plan, while Councilmember Dean Burrell asked both parties to produce “a plan that maximizes the lot."