Downtown site sought for Middlebury Farmers Market
MIDDLEBURY — Just two years ago, organizers of the Middlebury Farmers Market were scrambling for a new venue at which to accommodate the more than two dozen vendors who twice each week serve up a diverse menu of fresh veggies, cheeses, fruit, prepared foods and a whole lot more. Temporary parking and traffic problems related to construction on the railroad bridges project downtown prompted the farmers market to look for a new home.
Organizers found nice, reliable space at the Middlebury Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7823 headquarters at 530 Exchange St. And work will begin in earnest this spring on the $71 million plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges with concrete tunnel, a massive undertaking that will create some challenging conditions for portions of the next three years.
But farmers market leaders remain vigilant for a new downtown location that would give the market more walk-by traffic and give an extra boost to merchants in the center of the shire town’s village. They appear to have identified some locations opening up in downtown.
As previously reported in the Independent, the town of Middlebury has endorsed a conceptual renovation plan for Triangle Park that incorporates farmers market-friendly features, such as ample hardscape. Selectboard members have publicly stated they’d like the market to become a fixture in the downtown.
And Middlebury College officials confirmed last week they’re also open to inquiries about the market’s use of the institution’s downtown property.
“We would be open to a discussion about the best location for the market,” said Bill Burger, the college’s vice president for communications and chief marketing officer.
Middlebury Farmers Market organizers in the past have voiced interest in use of the new college-owned park at 94 Main St. (across from Shafers Market), as well as the park/play area adjacent to Twilight Hall. Hannah Sessions, a longtime MFM board member and co-owner of Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury, and some of her colleagues have a few reservations about the use of 94 Main St., in part because of its topography. It’s steep in various locations, thus making it hard to access for vendor vehicles and customers with disabilities.
Still, Sessions is heartened by the prospect of negotiating a downtown site.
“It never hurts to have options,” she said.
The market hasn’t had a downtown site since leaving the Marble Works shopping complex in 2017. Marble Works officials at the time had asked the organizers to find a new market site, as they wanted to maximize their parking in anticipation of the Middlebury rail bridges project.
Sessions stressed the market has felt welcomed at the VFW since it relocated there in April of 2017.
“They’ve been great landlords; absolutely wonderful,” Sessions said of the VFW, with which the market has a year-to-year agreement. “Exchange Street businesses are happy to have us where we are now, but we’re not getting the spontaneous foot traffic.”
Members of the Middlebury Farmers Market will hold their annual meeting this February, at which they will undoubtedly make “future location” a main agenda item. In the meantime, Sessions and her colleagues are working on a survey for both vendors and customers to get a sense of their respective priorities for a market space.
Past surveys have yielded some valuable information. For example, a farmers market survey of 63 shoppers conducted this past Aug. 18 revealed the average amount spent per shopper at the market was $29.24, and 30 percent of those surveyed called themselves weekly regulars.
The 2018 summer season included 26 Saturdays, during which an estimated 12,610 shoppers stopped by.
Organizers’ research in 2017 revealed, among other things, 15,392 shoppers visited the market that summer, with an average of $32.95 spent by customers surveyed on a sample date of Aug. 19, 2017.
Sessions added an average of 27.5 vendors participated in Saturday markets and 14.5 on Wednesdays during 2017. That number declined slightly to an average of 25 vendors on Saturdays and 13 on Wednesdays this year.
Location and competition from markets in more populated Chittenden County are among potential reasons for the decline, Sessions believes.
“It’s mostly a statewide trend,” she said.
It’s a trend that Sessions hopes will reverse itself, as she believes the Middlebury Farmers Market is a great asset to shoppers as well as to up-and-coming farmers, artisans and craftspeople. It’s where Sessions’ Blue Ledge Farm, which makes goat’s milk and cow’s milk cheeses, got its start.
“I’ve always thought of the farmers market as an incubator for new businesses,” Sessions said.
She is looking forward to further planning for a potential downtown site for the market. And she believes the venture, born in 1974, now has some strong allies.
“Most importantly, we feel the town of Middlebury is advocating for us now,” Sessions said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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