BRATTLEBORO—After 12 years of operations at the River Garden, the Winter Farmers’ Market is moving to the Church Building at 80 Flat St.
Open on Saturdays from November through March, the market offers local farmers an opportunity for direct-to-customer sales during the winter — a time when most of the state’s farmers’ markets are closed.
Other vendors include local sugarhouses, meat purveyors, bakers, chocolatiers, and craftspeople. The market’s café serves locally made prepared foods to diners and shoppers, with a seating area where they can enjoy live music.
None of that will change when the market, a project of Post Oil Solutions, a regional grassroots community sustainability nonprofit organization, kicks off its 13th season this November in its new home.
Some new features customers will notice at the new location: more room to move around; a completely accessible space for wheelchairs, walkers, and strollers; and free parking right outside the market’s doors.
Vendors will have a much easier time loading and unloading their wares. They will no longer have to jockey for the few short-term parking spaces while loading, navigate hand-trucks over uneven sidewalks through the snow from a block or more away, or pay for parking.
And, they can set up their booths at the beginning of the season and leave them there. At the River Garden, after working all day, vendors and market staff have to completely restore the room to its usual configuration.
Market Manager Sherry Maher said this change was a long time coming.
A few years after Strolling of the Heifers purchased the River Garden in 2013, the agricultural nonprofit renovated the basement and made it accessible, adding a stairway and a lift.
While this development was necessary, Maher said, it shrank the market’s footprint — which was already tight.
“We used every square inch of that space,” she said.
It was clear the Winter Farmers’ Market couldn’t grow if it remained at the River Garden — but it also had to shrink as a result, with five spaces sacrificed to the renovation.
The market and its vendors also lost their basement storage, which meant everything — including signage and tables — had to be schlepped in and out every week.
At the same time the square footage contracted, Strolling of the Heifers raised the Winter Farmers’ Market’s rent. This put financial pressure on the existing vendors, said Maher, because there were fewer of them to cover the cost.
Janice Baldwin, a member of the market’s steering committee, told The Commons, “The market exists for the farmers, and we can’t raise the vendor fees.”
“It was a trying time,” Maher said.
She noted the market’s business model was crafted, from the beginning, to be sustainable and affordable, and that asking vendors to pay higher fees — some of the highest among statewide markets, she said — was contrary to that mission.
In December 2016, market officials called a community meeting to figure out what to do about relocating and to ask for help.
Maher said the 35 “very supportive” attendees included representatives from the real estate and banking industries, the Inclusion Center, Brattleboro’s municipal government, the state Legislature, local farmers and agricultural specialists, the Food Bank, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies [SeVEDS], and the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market, which operates in the warmer months.
At the meeting, Maher and members of the market’s Steering Committee explained their situation and asked for help.
A few notable results emerged from that event. An official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested Maher apply for a USDA Rural Business Development grant to conduct a feasibility study to answer Baldwin’s question: “How big of a market can Brattleboro support?”
And real estate agent John Hatton brought the Church Building’s owner, Janet Wallstein, into the conversation.
Baldwin wrote a successful grant application to the USDA, which provided funds to Kitchen Table Consultants, a Pennsylvania-based firm specializing in the farm, food, and small business sector, to help with the feasibility study.
The study included surveys for customers, non-customers, and vendors. Maher said one focus was to ask former customers and non-customers why they didn’t shop there. They also wanted to know if the vendors and shoppers would follow the market if it moved.
“We found that the majority of regular, local customers had every intention of following us,” Maher said.
But where would that be?
Maher told The Commons she had looked at the Church Building in the past, when she first thought of moving the market.
“We walked in and drooled over it,” Maher said, because of its large size and free parking — but the timing wasn’t right, and the rent was beyond their reach.
Baldwin and Maher said they also considered a long list of other sites: schools, fraternal organizations, the Cotton Mill, the Outlet Center, the Winston Prouty Center, the Retreat Farm. They also didn’t rule out remaining at the River Garden.
This process invited the vendors to weigh in on the steering committee’s decision, Maher said.
Ultimately, the Church Building emerged as the winner, and the market signed a three-year lease on a former office space there.
Maher said the owner, Wallstein, “is being very generous with us.”
This rental includes “a big, open space, bathrooms, running water, hot water, and storage,” Maher said. The larger footprint means the market can offer both a more spacious, quieter café area and a new kids’ section.
And because vendors no longer have to break down their booths every Saturday, “that means we’ll probably see more attractive and exciting-looking spaces,” Maher said.
Although the market’s new location is much larger than the River Garden, the number of vendors will remain the same, at least for this coming season, said Baldwin.
Maher noted the vendor applications will go out this week, and according to the vendor survey, nearly all of them said they would relocate to the Church Building. The few that didn’t, she said, had “other reasons,” like going out of business or deciding not to vend.
Next challenge: moving
The next challenges include moving and letting everyone know where to find them come November.
Maher said they recently applied to the Thompson Trust for one-time assistance with moving expenses. To prepare for the market season, she and her staff need to install a sink, paint the floor, and purchase café tables and chairs.
Then, the market’s work, said Maher, is to “figure out how to ensure visibility and get the word out.”
“For 12 years we’ve been in the heart of downtown Brattleboro, and we won’t be as visible to folks passing by who can see what’s going on in [the River Garden],” said Maher.
Baldwin seemed less worried.
The consultants told her that the possible loss will be balanced by former customers who return because of a larger and more accessible space, and new customers, such as those who are elderly and those of a modest income, who live in or near the Flat Street neighborhood.
“This will attract a new population that didn’t shop at the market before,” Baldwin said.