'09 Farmers Market - a year of change

For the Lexington Farmers Market, this summer was the best of seasons and the worst of seasons.

The market, which has more than 60 vendor members, just wrapped up its first year in a new location, in Cheapside Park.

The year was "very positive, all in all," market manager Jeff Dabbelt said.

"We certainly had bumps in the road economically and with the space specifically," Dabbelt said.

He won't have an estimate on how the market performed financially until February, when vendors voluntarily report sales. Last year, when demolition at their Vine Street spot had begun, the market had about $2 million in sales, down from almost $2.5 million the year before.

Anecdotally, Dabbelt said, he has heard there were some hugely successful vendors and "some not doing so well."

The move from Vine Street to Short Street and Cheapside around the old courthouse was a big change in many ways. Many vendors had to unload all those flowers, melons and vegetables to set up stalls. For those who still worked out of their trucks, some streets had to be blocked from traffic.

Farmers market board president Mark Henkle was one of those who moved onto Short, where he could park his truck rather than unload pounds of fragile heirloom tomatoes.

"Once everybody found me, it was fine," Henkle said.

The economic meltdown hit some vendors hard.

"As people's discretionary income dropped, flowers were one of the things people cut out first," said Charlie Hendricks of Three Toads Farm in Clark County, known for lilies and jellies.

The jelly still sold well, "but in the flowers, we had some indications that it might be slower but it was sort of disappointing when we'd done so well in the past," he said.

Nevertheless, Hendricks said he was happy about the new location. "I really enjoyed where it is. I think it had more of an open atmosphere," he said. "You could see a lot more vendors. You didn't have all the trucks. The appearance was so much better."

This year, the market also was also by several other factors. Henkle said bad weather and early University of Kentucky football games cut into sales. "Whenever that happens, it's very, very noticeable," Hendricks said. "Also, it seemed this year that it rained every weekend for a month and a half." Several weekends were hurt by other downtown activities, including parades, bicycle and foot races, and other events scheduled for Cheapside Park.

Next year, some vendors might benefit from planned upgrades, including a glass pavilion over half of the park, scheduled to be finished by April.

The city is expecting to open bidding on the pavilion later this month, said Harold Tate, president/executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. He said a $750,000 gift from Fifth Third Bank has been set aside to build it.

The pavilion isn't the only potential change. Those enormous planters might be going. Tate said the city is looking at replacing them with bollards to block people from parking near the courthouse without bottling up the flow of foot traffic.

Ann Bell Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Georgetown said the Cheapside pavilion gives the market a permanence that should reassure customers and farmers alike. "We can focus on growing stuff and not on where we'll be next year," she said.

She and other vendors said they noticed a lot of new faces at the market this year.

John Garey of Garey Farms in Paris said many regulars didn't follow them from Vine Street. "Our guess is there were 60 to 70 percent that did not make the move," Garey said. "Our crowd seemed to get a lot younger to me."

The new customers wanted different things, said Mary Tyler, known as "The Peach Lady," of Winchester.

"We lost a lot of clientele because of the parking, a lot of our older clientele that you can depend on year after year. We tended to have younger people that buy itsy, bitsy things: ... two tomatoes or a half pound of beans. ... They buy less, and they tend to buy things you fix quick," Tyler said.

Vendors aren't sure whether parking was a factor, or just resistance to change.

"There is parking that is just as close, it's just not the same parking," Garey said.

Jesse Johnson of Johnson Bros. Farms said many of his regular customers complained about the parking, "not that it's that much worse."

Johnson said his business on Saturday mornings was off about 25 percent because of the move. "I've been doing it 25 years or more," he said. "It grows every year, except for this past year."

Leo Keene of Blue Moon Garlic said his business was down as well, particularly on bread. He thinks part of it might be that the market is less visible now. In the previous location, anyone driving on Vine Street was sure to pass the market.

More advertising and signs next year might help, and there is room for the market to grow in its new space.

"While I think the new market has a lot of potential, there are some drawbacks that just make it different than the old market," Keene said. "We couldn't stay there (on Vine) ... but for a lot of us, it was kind of a rough year."