BERLIN — The Berlin Farmers Market and the Town Council ironed out some of the details of their new partnership this week.
Though both sides agreed to the terms, the council continues to express a desire to see the market expand in the future, something Market Master Susan Wood said was acceptable as long as expansion is done properly.
The biggest concern held by the farmers is that Berlin might try to uproot them from downtown and transplant them somewhere else.
“Historically, markets that are moved to the edge of town, as we presented factually in October, do not survive. And we have history enough with enough markets to know that is true,” Wood said.
The council agreed unanimously the farmers can stay downtown, where they have been located for decades, for the immediate time being. However, Councilman Troy Purnell was frank in his admission that he thinks more room needs to be found for the market and potentially a new location that will allow more access and more vendors to participate. The current market is also located on a town parking lot and a growing downtown has put parking at a premium.
“That parking lot is really needed and I for one would love to see the thing expanded to be two or three times the size to make it an attraction for the town,” said Purnell. “It’s an attraction but it’s a limited space you have.”
Wood agreed with Purnell that there might be some room for expansion somewhere down the road but asserted that the vendors do not wish to leave the parking lot downtown where they have operated for years.
“I’d really like to see it grow, too, if it can grow with quality,” she said.
Councilwoman Lisa Hall promised Wood and the other farmers who attended the meeting that they are valuable to the town and the council will always seek to act in their best interests.
“We most definitely never want to do anything but support the farmers market, and we would never make a move on the farmers market that would close you down and see you go away,” she said.
Mayor Gee Williams also told the farmers that there needs to be mutual trust moving forward. Not just that the council will keep the market in a favorable location but that they will promote the farmers dutifully.
“As your partner, you’re going to have to trust that we’re going to do everything that we can to make this successful,” said Williams. “Historically, anything that we’ve promoted, there has been more value for the buck than anybody could do by themselves.”
The farmers are counting on the town for advertising, said Wood. However, she admitted that she was a little confused over how the dues paid by market vendors are being spent, a question Wood told the council many of the farmers have.
“The fee that they are paying is for the benefit and the promotion of the farmers market,” she reminded the council.
Wood wanted an assurance that those fees would be used to advertise the market and to fund and promote any special events that might tie into the market. The council agreed that they would, but Town Administrator Tony Carson explained to Wood that dues paid by farmers are not set into any special fund. They join the general fund like nearly all other town revenue. When there is a need for money to be spent purchasing ad space, signage or in any promotions for the farmers market, Carson said an appropriate amount of money will come back out.
Some farmers might not understand why fees are not going into a designated fund just for the market, replied Wood. Hall again asked the vendors to trust the council and pointed out that all revenue the town deals with is open to review and scrutiny.
“And we have to be accountable and transparent with what we’re doing with that money,” she said.
Williams agreed and predicted that the town might spend more money promoting the market than it receives in dues. That’s not a bad thing, he continued, as it would further demonstrate that the town and the market are ready to work co-operatively for the good of all.
According to Wood, the farmers are onboard with that partnership as long as the town stays fair. Complaints voiced when the market was originally scheduled to be re-located in October have been addressed, she promised.
Vendors have decided to cancel all Wednesday markets to free up the parking lot during the week. Wednesday markets are only seasonal from April through October and have not been especially profitable for farmers, according to Wood, and thus can be sacrificed to alleviate some parking issues.
A new nine-member advisory board has also been created to oversee vendors and screen potential applicants. The board consists of farmers, town representatives and members of the business community. Additionally, farmers will now be purchasing a business license with the town to operate as vendors at the market and the market will look to become more active in town events.