BANGOR, Maine — Members of the City Council spent nearly 40 minutes Tuesday night arguing about whether to charge the Bangor Farmers ’ Market $25 per year to set up shop in a place it used for free in its past two seasons.
The market, which made its debut two years ago in the Abbott Square parking lot across from the Bangor Public Library, is up for a lease renewal. City staff proposed extending that agreement for another three years, allowing the market to set up in the parking lot on Sundays from April 1 through Nov. 30, and extend its hours to 9 a.m.-4 p.m. — at no charge.
That sparked a lengthy debate at the committee meeting about fairness and what entities the city does and does not charge for use of city space.
“All of the city’s public spaces have value,” City Councilor Gibran Graham said. “That’s why other organizations who host events in a city space pay a $25 fee. It’s not a moneymaker. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a symbolic recognition that the space has value.”
The debate is complicated by the fact that not every organization pays that fee for use of public space.
City Solicitor Norm Heitmann said the council’s “unwritten policy” on which groups pay for use of city property has been applied inconsistently. The decision of whether to charge for use is based largely on a particular council or department’s feelings on how much value particular organizations and their events bring to the city space.
For example, the American Folk Festival doesn’t pay rent for its use of the waterfront during its three-day summer festival. Nor does the Bangor Band when it plays in Pickering Square, on the library lawn or on the waterfront. However, River City Cinema, which shows films during the summer in Pickering Square, does pay the city a fee for use of that space.
City staff approached the organizers of the farmers market two years ago and asked them to come to the city’s parking lot to provide the service in Bangor’s downtown.
Councilor Pat Blanchette argued that it would be backhanded if the city were to turn around and demand payment after asking the organization to come to the parking lot in the first place.
A $25 fee won’t hamstring the farmers market, according to Clayton Carter, owner of Fail Better Farm in Etna and chairman of the Bangor Farmers’ Market Association.
“I woke up this morning and immediately saw a text on my phone about some new lease fee,” Carter said Wednesday. No one from the organization attended Tuesday’s meeting, as city staff expected it to result in a routine lease renewal.
News of the proposed rental fee spread quickly over social media after the meeting, but few included the proposed fee amount, so Carter, after some initial worry, made some calls to find out it was only $25.
Farmers pay $40 annual membership fees to the nonprofit Bangor Farmers’ Market Association and a $5 fee before each market date at which they set up a booth to cover operation costs. The association operates the market on a tiny $3,000 budget, much of which goes toward operating the machine that processes EBT and SNAP benefit payments, according to Carter.
“It’s definitely hard to classify a farmers market,” Carter said. “Is it a community event? Is it a business venture? It’s a little bit of both of those things.”
None of the councilors wants to see the market go away, they say.
Councilors Graham, Pauline Civiello and David Nealley — three of the five voting members on the committee — voted in favor of sending the lease, amended to add the $25 fee, to the full council.
Councilors Patricia Blanchette, Josh Plourde and Nelson Durgin expressed frustration with the fee and the lengthy debate that led up to it.
“This is on a Sunday morning when that parking lot is vacant,” Plourde said. “No one is lining up at [Community and Economic Development] Director [Tanya] Emery’s doorstep saying they want to use this space. … I think we’re making way too big an issue out of this.”
Council Chairman Ben Sprague echoed that frustration.
“I think [the discussion] is a colossal waste of time and resources,” Sprague said Wednesday. “I think we are lucky to have a farmers market in Bangor at all and the value they add to our community cannot be quantified.”
Sprague said he planned to pay the fee himself if it goes through.
“Really, I am doing it so I don’t have to waste my time and that of our staff with such silliness,” he said.
The council is expected to vote on the new lease and whether to implement the $25 fee during its regular meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday in City Council chambers on the third floor of City Hall. The lease could be amended to drop the fee before the vote.