BERLIN — Extraordinary opposition from vendors at Berlin’s Farmers Market last night sidelined a potential re-location of the event, at least for the next few months.
However, when agreeing to allow the market to remain in downtown Berlin, town officials made it clear that they are expecting more cooperation and communication between the Chamber of Commerce and the market in the future.
Earlier this month, the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, at the request of the Mayor and Council, submitted a proposal to transfer the downtown Farmers Market to nearby Stephen Decatur and Henry Parks. The market, which only meets on Wednesday afternoons and Friday mornings into early afternoon, would have been held at Henry Park mid-week and Stephen Decatur Park on Fridays.
The announcement of the move last week slammed head first into an angry stonewall of dissent from market vendors.
“The chamber did not act on our part,” said Susan Wood of A&W Farm.
One of roughly a dozen farmers and growers that turned out in force at Monday’s council meeting, Wood outlined many of the group’s problems with the proposed re-location, mainly that it might harm or even kill the market’s business and that a decision was made without ever speaking to the vendors.
“It was never voted on … it was totally out of the blue,” she said.
Linda Doherty of Linda’s Backyard also stressed the impact of pushing the market from downtown.
“If you do move it from a market area, it’s market suicide,” she predicted.
Joining the vendors in support were some local business owners and private residents, making for a packed house that spilled out into the hallway for most of the meeting.
Vendor Phyllis Wimbrow told the council during her comments that the most important thing the town needed to realize is that many of the farmers depend on the market for their income.
“I think you need to understand this is a business, it’s not a hobby,” she said.
Representatives from the chamber defended the proposed move to the parks from downtown, where the market has operated for almost 20 years, as a natural expansion for both Berlin and the market. Chamber Board President Elaine Brady explained to the council and the audience that moving the market would, in their opinion, be the best way to allow the town and the event to grow. From the town’s end, taking the market from the downtown would free up the parking lot currently used.
“We feel that moving the farmers market is the best solution to the parking problem,” said Brady, who added that a recent business boom in town, including new restaurants, has made parking difficult to find during peak times.
Moving the market would free up between 20 and 25 spaces during its hours of operations, according to Berlin Director of Economic Development Michael Day.
As for the market, Brady argued that placing vendors in the parks wouldn’t hurt their current customers, whom she believed would dutifully follow. The additional room would also allow more vendors to operate out of the traditionally exclusive market, noted Brady, and the new location’s proximity to Route 113 could bring in vehicle traffic.
The chamber’s arguments were soundly opposed by all of the farmers in attendance. Wimbrow rejected the idea that all of the market’s customers would follow them to the parks, which, though both less than one mile away, are well outside of the town proper.
“Downtown Berlin is a vital place to be,” she said. “It’s lively.”
Wood took issue with the belief that being located off of Route 113 would add a lot of new customers.
“They’re not going to stop on their way from work … it’s not a shopping highway,” she said.
Terry Jordan of Longridge Gardens asked the chamber for any research it had showing that transplanting a successful market from downtown to the outskirts of town could be successful. She said all of her experience and knowledge led Jordan to believe that a farmers market needs the foot traffic generated by a thriving downtown to survive. She asked the council to think carefully before moving the successful market.
“This is our livelihood,” she said.
On the issue of parking, none of the farmers disputed that recent growth in the town warrants more parking, though not all felt it was as serious as the chamber was painting it. But the vendors unanimously seemed affronted that Berlin would try to remedy that issue at their perceived expense.
Wimbrow noted that the two new restaurants installed on Main Street this summer did not add any new parking to the town. She pointed out that in Berlin’s zoning code a new business that changes the building’s prior use significantly is supposed to either provide additional parking or, in lieu of that, pay into a parking fund that the town could use to install spaces in the future.
At the meeting, Town Director of Planning and Zoning Chuck Ward confirmed that neither of the restaurants were asked to pay into a parking fund.
However, Ward explained that the code Wimbrow was referring to has been on the books since 1977 and, as far as he knows, has never been enforced.
“There’s no record of a fee being established,” he said.
With upcoming code revisions planned for this year, Ward confirmed that parking will likely be given a much stronger focus.
“At that point, the Mayor and Council would have to determine the worth of a parking space,” he said.
Still, Wimbrow felt that the vendors were being punished for the town’s lack of foresight with parking, a comment her colleagues agreed with enthusiastically.
Even with the perceived parking issue, the farmers had defenders among residents and town businesses alike.
Patty Falck read aloud a letter written by her daughter Blair Parsons, both of Ta-Da. Parsons’ letter praised the market and argued that the vendors are bringing in much more business to the town than what may be lost through parking.
“So many of our regular customers come in just for the market and spend a little extra time shopping and dining,” wrote Parsons.
Many of the farmers and residents in attendance pointed out that the market was originally invited into downtown Berlin nearly two decades ago by the late Tom Patton as a driver to boost economic development. Wood asserted that the market was part of Berlin’s revitalization effort and to kick them out now that the town is doing well would be unfair and ungrateful.
After more than two hours of passionate arguments, the council agreed that the farmers market should stay where it is, at least for the time being. It should be noted that, besides the chamber and some opinions expressed on the council, no one in the audience spoke in favor of transplanting the market.
Working from a suggestion by Wimbrow, the council unanimously decided to table a vote on the move for two months to give the vendors and the chamber time to work together to brainstorm solutions for any issues that exist.
Mayor Gee Williams, though he expressed sympathy for the fear the idea of re-location prompted in many vendors, said that there is a serious lack of communication that needs to be looked into. He pointed to the market’s “Executive Board,” which has never met since being formed last year.
“I think what we really need here is for this board to become a functioning government board,” said Williams.
Councilman Dean Burrell asked that the farmers approach any meeting with the chamber willing to compromise.
“You need to enter into this thing with an open mind,” he advised.
Williams agreed, saying that Berlin is a “growing community with growing pains” and that it was better to worry about not having enough parking than not having enough business.
As far as coordination between the vendors and the chamber, Williams would like to see the executive board become its own entity that could come up with suggestions on how to maximize parking at the market as well as to develop a system with a lot of checks and balances for when someone new applies to become a vendor. As it currently stands, new applicants are screened by the market master and a chamber representative, a system which the vendors claim helps maintain the event’s high standards but which some councilmembers noted lacked transparency.
The chamber received the brunt of the farmer’s anger during the meeting and was universally panned for requesting the move without alerting vendors or fully understanding the limitations of the proposed locations.
This morning, Williams issued a letter to the editor clarifying that the chamber was only acting on a request made by himself and the council. He said that was not clear at last night’s meeting.
“The President and Executive Director of the Berlin Chamber of Commerce made their request to move the Farmer’s Market to the town parks in Berlin at the urging of myself and the town council,” he wrote.
Williams went on to admit that this point was not made clear during the meeting and apologized for not better explaining the situation.
“No member of the farming community or any Berlin business should in any way condemn or criticize the motives of the Chamber of Commerce, when they were simply seeking to accommodate the Town’s effort to create more parking for downtown merchants and businesses. The Chamber, as it has for several years, was once again being a good partner in promoting the Town of Berlin,” he wrote. “Any animosity or dissatisfaction with the Chamber’s request should be solely directed at myself, as the Mayor of Berlin. Not making this clear at the meeting is something that I bear full responsibility for.”