Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Farmers Market dispute is ripe for compromise
LENOX — What's not to love about a farmers market? You get fresh farm-to-table produce grown locally or nearby, as well as offerings that stretch the definition of farm, such as baked goods, crafts, trinkets and whatnot.
Their popularity has grown, with at least a dozen operating seasonally in Berkshire County and a handful more in nearby southwestern Vermont.
And yet, the vagabond Lenox Farmers Market continues to look for a permanent home, after starting at Lenox Commons, followed by three troubled years at the tiny downtown Triangle Park starting in 2009, with predictable traffic snafus on hectic summertime Friday afternoons.
Then, Shakespeare & Company, a third of a mile from the town center, started as a promising site with plenty of open space and parking galore but after several years, shoppers and purveyors dwindled.
Now, with an opening less than three weeks away on May 27, the start of Memorial Day weekend, yet another location — the heart of downtown in Lilac Park — is causing great angst.
An even split
Two high-profile, long-established food and alcoholic-beverage purveyors led a small group of citizens voicing vigorous complaints to the Select Board this past week. At the hair salon owned by Selectman Kenneth Fowler, where customer debate on town issues runs rampant, sentiment is said to be evenly split.
Supporters include the owners of retail establishments who believe they'll benefit from more people downtown, Town Hall leaders, the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, the Select Board and members of the public who enjoy the market and its offerings.
Opponents such as Joe Nejaime, who has operated his Wine Cellar in town for more than three decades and sells a wide variety of specialty foods, and Earl Albert, who has owned the indispensable Loeb's Foodtown for nearly a half century, complain about unfair competition for their year-round businesses that struggle through the winter, pay commercial taxes and are subject to codes, regulations and inspections.
The objectors point out that nearly all the vendors lined up for the Farmers Market are from out of town, including a few from out of state. It's worth noting, however, that farming is mostly a bygone pursuit in Lenox.
Traffic, parking crunch
Nejaime prepared a document for the Select Board to support his request, or perhaps demand, that its approval of the FM, as he calls it, be revoked. He also cites a list of recommendations, regulations and requirements on the state Energy and Environmental Affairs webpage at www.mass.gov.
He contends that already existing traffic congestion drives away local patrons of his and other businesses on summer weekends ("it's too crazy"), that there's a downtown parking crunch and that "the FM features the same and similar vendors of produce, bread, cheese, soup, pastries, preserves as the food and beverage stores directly adjacent."
He has a point — for example, the esteemed Berkshire Mountain Bakery, one of his major suppliers, has been among the vendors of the Farmers Market. There is a lot of traffic compared to November through April, but downtown businesses thrive and depend on tourism, and, for long-ago urban dwellers like me, traffic here is a breeze compared to most major metro areas.
For anyone willing to walk three minutes, parking is never a problem in downtown Lenox, in my humble opinion. Never.
Nejaime's view must be weighed, however, when it comes to the perceived, or actual, threat to businesses like his and Loeb's.
He calls for the Select Board to "consider the unique benefits of protecting long-established businesses like ours which contribute to the community year-round in many ways" — employment, tax payments, volunteer services. "As brick-and-mortar operations, we are subject to requirements of Historic District and zoning bylaws, most notably parking," Nejaime writes.
While stating that "this is not a matter of favoring one business over another," Nejaime argues against the introduction of "new, directly competing businesses to occupy Lilac Park, only on the best afternoon of the week and only during the 'busy' season, exempted from any of the provisions of zoning and without any quantifiable or demonstrable benefit to Lenox."
"How can the town in good conscience co-opt the season and the park in favor of the Farmers Market?" he asks the Select Board, claiming that "safety will be severely compromised" and that "sales records at several stores confirm losses specific to the time of the Triangle Park Farmers Market."
It's true the market would pay no taxes to the town, but it would contribute $1,000 in rent for its use of the park for six hours on 17 Friday afternoons (including set-up and take-down time) and no wine or liquor sales are allowed.
All of which leaves town leaders in quite a pickle and a bit of a jam.
Here's a compromise worth considering: Move the market to a portion of Brushwood Farms off Routes 7 and 20 just north of downtown, where open space and parking are available and the few merchants there are not food and beverage purveyors. Police Chief Stephen O'Brien told me this would be a quite reasonable idea.
Bottom line: The Farmers Market flap should be resolved in a way that allows residents and local merchants to have their cake — and produce — and eat it, too.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org
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