The farmers’ market tables have turned.
Two years ago, the city of Bangor sought a farmers’ market for the downtown — to offer local, healthy food and improve the area’s appeal. In many ways, the city succeeded. During the spring, summer and fall, each Sunday the Bangor Farmers’ Market at the Abbott Square parking lot across from the library draws dozens of vendors and visitors who otherwise wouldn’t be downtown.
Now, however, the farmers’ market — scheduled to reopen May 4 — has found itself in the middle of what’s become an overblown debate about the monetary value of public space.
On Tuesday, the city’s Business and Economic Development Committee voted to recommend to the full Bangor City Council that the nonprofit running the farmers’ market pay a yearly $25 fee to use the parking lot, despite the fact it hasn’t been charged anything for the last two years.
The question isn’t really about money. The Bangor Farmers’ Market Association can pay $25 out of its small $3,000 annual budget, funded by participating farmers. And the city certainly won’t reap real financial benefits by collecting the amount.
The fee appears to be more an attempt at consistency — a word mentioned often at Tuesday’s committee meeting. Some organizations are charged a fee to use some city spaces, but some are not. It depends on the activity and the worth of that activity to the city. There’s no overarching, written guideline.
The problem with trying to be consistent in this instance is that the city can’t be consistent in one instance. If the city wants to set rules for fees for every public space, it should discuss doing so, but it shouldn’t charge the farmers’ market, while other nonprofits continue to use spaces for free, and call it “consistency.”
Without a set policy, it’s up to city leaders to make a judgement call. Is it important to collect a $25 fee from the farmers’ market?
It is not.
The farmers’ market doesn’t cost the city anything. It cleans up after itself. It operates at a time when the lot is vacant. No one else wants to use the lot.
The farmers’ market itself is not a business endeavor. Though the farmers who sell produce and goods may make some money, doesn’t the city want to help improve their meager profit margins?
The goal of the market is to offer healthy, local products and draw people downtown. It’s about creating a stronger sense of community. If anything, the city should be encouraging more activities like it.
Not to mention, of course, that the city itself solicited the creation of the market. What has changed to make charging a nominal fee make sense?
To put how foolish the $25 amount is into perspective, city officials should look at how much money community members already pour into the market to make the food sold there affordable for those with low incomes.
Last year, the farmers’ market partnered with the nonprofit Food AND Medicine to provide a discount to customers paying with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The farmers are still paid full price; Food AND Medicine fundraises to provide the discount.
Last year, it raised $13,537 from local businesses, faith entities, service organizations and individuals, and Food AND Medicine received one matching grant from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation.
Community members appreciate the farmers’ market so much they are willing to pay for others to enjoy its offerings. It doesn’t make sense to charge the downtown asset anything, especially a small $25 fee to attempt to achieve a level of consistency that doesn’t exist.
When the full council meets on Monday, it should reject the fee.