by Mike Dunphy
Those attending the opening of the outdoor Capital City Farmers’ Market on May 5 could be forgiven for doing a double take. Not more than a week or two before, newspapers (The Bridge included) were declaring the market’s “new” location on State Street. However, that Saturday morning found the market in its familiar location in the parking lot between Christ Episcopal Church and Julio’s.
The seemingly last-minute reversal came through pressure from the businesses on State Street, which were more than a bit miffed at a change in layout of the market from the three trial runs last summer. Rather than running down the center of the street, vendors’ kiosks were placed along the sidewalks of the road with their backs to the store fronts. This would essentially close off downtown businesses, making access to some quite difficult, not to mention blocking both sun and sight lines on the stores, as shoppers are funneled down the center of the road.
For shopkeepers like Karen Williams of Woodbury Mountain Toys, this can lead to precipitous drop-offs in sales on their busiest day of the week. As Williams told the City Council in a meeting on April 25, “I have supported State Street closures because I know how viable and vibrant it makes a downtown, but it also causes sales to go down for my business. Saturdays are my busiest day. When the streets are closed, I am down 15 to 30 percent for those days.”
Williams was not alone in this concern. Nancy Martel, co-owner of Pinky’s on State, pointed to an even greater drop in sales during closures, sometimes reaching 50 percent. “If they have the way they are showing it now,” Martel told the council, “It blocks us off completely. In order to get to our shop, you have to walk down to one end of the street, or to the other, to come into Pinky’s.” Similar situations were reported by Sarah Lesser of Salaam Boutique and Jessica Turner of Capital Kitchen.
For Turner, as with many, the change in the layout led to her resistance. “I was a fan. I loved it and championed it to fellow business owners and other community members,” she points out regarding the first layout. However, that was a very different set-up. It was down the center line, with vendors back to back looking into our stores. Then I saw the map of what the layout was going to be, and I couldn’t believe how bad my position was. We are in a box. You cannot get to me unless you go all the way around.”
Turner also noted that downtown businesses have been voicing these concerns for months, even before the change of plan. “There has been a representative of the farmers’ market, a manager, who attended meetings with the Montpelier business association since November, and we’ve been quite straightforward with all of these concerns. Now we are starting to feel like [they are saying] ‘It’s too late to do anything about it now,’ but it’s been several months we’ve been voicing these concerns. They’ve been quite aware of the issues we’ve had from the beginning.”
According to Ashton Kirol, manager of the market, efforts were made to address the worries. “When we talked with the businesses, we realized that was one of their major concerns was having their shops blocked off, so we dropped a few additional vendors to open up extra paths to walk through . . . and we also opened up access points in between those crosswalks so you would never have to go more than 40 or 50 feet to get to the sidewalk access to shop.”
Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive, attributes any perceived friction or misunderstandings to the complexity of the situation: “There are a lot of moving pieces on both sides, and it’s very complicated. The farmers’ market is dealing with a lot of vendors that have their own needs; the downtown merchants have various needs . . . and if there was any confusion that’s where it stemmed from.”
The reasons for the change in layout were many. The fire department wanted to keep the center of the street open, but eventually accepted the idea of going back to the previous plan of kiosks down the center of the road. According to assistant city manager Sue Allen, liability was also an issue. “When they face the sidewalks, there’s a space that people have to step off the curb to get into the vendor tents, and they were worried about that.” This is no idle worry, because the market did experience a trip-and-fall incident in the past that ended up as a lawsuit.
Another concern was unloading, because the layout in the center of the street makes it more complicated for vendors to get their wares set up. “There is only one lane of traffic, with having to maintain an emergency lane, but also trying to keep a walking lane on both sides of the tents,” explains Kirol. Furthermore, it would require dropping more vendors, down to 44, which the market can’t maintain financially. The market would also have to remove vendors accepted months ago.
So when the city council stipulated the original layout for the market to go forward—and on short notice—the decision was made to return to the old location. “With all those things combined,” Kirol elaborates, “we decided it wouldn’t work for our market. So that’s why we pulled back into the lot for the season.”
A long-term solution is still being pursued among all parties, including Montpelier Alive, which sees itself as a mediator. While no resolution is yet in sight, many are being envisioned, be it breaking up the market into two pieces, with one on State Street and another on Langdon Street, or moving the market down near the State House. Both of those plans present problems in terms of street closure and traffic.
In a City Council video, Fire Chief Bob Gowans considers the Langdon split “problematic” and prefers the State House location. However, he notes the differing opinion of the police, owing to traffic issues. “When you block State Street in front of the State House, you have to stop cars coming off the interstate at Memorial Drive, because you can’t let them turn left on Bailey Avenue and go down to State Street to find the street closed.”
For Kirol, the ideal long-term solution would be the State House lawn, which offers space, a beautiful setting, and fewer issues with traffic and parking, but the challenge is having the lawn available for all 28 Saturdays, because other events are often taking place on the lawn. “The issue on our end is that there are often events going on at the State House, and the farmers’ market might not get priority on those weekends. So we are trying to come up with ideas for those weekends and an overall plan to make it work on the State House lawn.”
For now the market will remain in its usual space, but nerves are on edge regarding the upcoming construction on Taylor Street, with work estimated to begin in July. “We were worried about losing vendor spaces—approximately five vendor spaces—when construction starts,” Kirol explains. “That’s one of the reasons we were hoping to do the market on State Street this year.”
What’s important is that all parties are talking and working toward a solution that accommodates everyone. As noted by Groberg, “Montpelier Alive wants something that can work well for the merchants and for the farmers’ market, and we think they can be mutually supportive and beneficial to each other.”