We Saved The Farmers’ Market (For Now)

Public outcry over an effort by Locatelli properties to relocate the Belmont Farmers’ Market saved the day…for now. (Image courtesy of Jessie Bennett.)

Summary: Overwhelming public outcry sunk effort by Locatelli Properties to oust the Market from Belmont Center. But the battle’s probably not over.

When Belmont Food Collaborative representatives Suzanne Johannet and Anne Lougée presented their request for a permit for the twelfth season of the Belmont Farmers’ Market at their March 27th meeting, the Selectmen were all smiles for the two women, and they joked about “cutting to the chase” to approve the permit. But Kevin Foley of Locatelli Properties was waiting to pounce, and pounce he did.

His complaints about the Farmers’ Market centered on parking, and he was asking for “immediate action.” He claimed that it did “not make sense to put a Farmers’ Market in a business community where it’s not supported,” and presented comments from twenty-one business owners to support his view. After his remarks, Selectman Mark Paolillo, visibly annoyed, was still in favor of moving to vote to approve the permit (which elicited a frustrated response from Foley), but Jim Williams expressed concern about ruling so quickly and Sami Baghdady concurred. When Johannet and Lougée left the table, the future of the market was uncertain.

Leveraging their local networks, Facebook and the social network NextDoor, the Belmont Food Collaborative spread the word about the outcome of the March 27th meeting. Articles from the Belmont Citizen-Herald and Belmontonian were quickly shared by stunned and angry supporters. When the Board of Selectmen reconvened on April 3rd, Johannet presented a compelling case regarding the Farmers’ Market’s minimal impact on parking and its sizeable impact on the community. But it was what had happened between the two meetings that ensured the market’s future.

Aside from a spattering of “businesses pay taxes” remarks, almost all the comments you can find about the issue on social media were in support of the market. People were upset that the permit had been held up, and many turned that anger into letters and emails to the Board of Selectmen and Locatelli properties. (At the meeting, Paolillo referenced the “hundreds” of letters of support the Board had received.) Their case was bolstered by the fact that Locatelli tenants Foodies and Belmont Books, the two most anticipated stores to open in Belmont in ages, both expressed public support for the Farmers’ Market. Foodie’s owner Vincent Leon went on the record in the Belmont Citizen Herald saying, “We are thrilled to hear Belmont has a farmers’ market and contrary to what our landlord’s statements seemed to imply, we have no issue with sharing a parking lot with them. In fact we feel their presence will help to draw more people to the center.”

About fifty supporters waited anxiously during the presentation to see if they would need to stand up and speak out in favor of being able to buy fresh, local produce in the sunshine. As it turned out, the only public comment came from Locatelli’s Foley, who was in attendance accompanied by his attorney.

Approaching the microphone, Foley said he supports the Farmers’ Market and suggested moving the market to a different day if things are too cramped this year. Olive branch extended, he let his lawyer do the rest of the talking. But, at that point, the matter was pretty well settled — for this year at least. In the end, the permit was granted with smiles all around and applause from the audience. There were assurances that the parking situation would be monitored and the scheduling revisited in the fall.

I don’t want to paint Foley as a moustache-twirling bad guy. I imagine that he and the business owners who complained are anxious about how new businesses and parking meters will affect their bottom lines, and maybe they have quietly viewed the Farmers’ Market as a competitor over the last twelve years. They have a different perspective than many of the people who frequent the market, and may not believe the impact reports that show that Farmers’ Markets have a positive effect on local commerce.

But for those of us who frequent the market, their opposition looked like the worst marketing move since New Coke. I moved here in 2007, in the early days of the Farmers’ Market, and seeing the signs around town encouraged me to patronize Belmont Center, which was not then an especially bustling hub.

In the years since, I’ve been overjoyed to see the Center evolve. On Thursday afternoons, I can grab some beer from Craft Beer Cellar; get some coffee and cookies at Quebrada; peruse the racks at Revolve to find a bargain. The Farmers’ Market brought me to Belmont Center even while the old Macy’s stood empty and forlorn and during what seemed like interminable construction. The idea that it is a detriment to businesses seems patently illogical.

And, at a moment when Belmont is salivating to show up at new businesses like Foodies and Belmont Books and fork over our money to reward their investment in our community, their landlord soured the mood by attacking a beloved Belmont institution.

For now, the future looks cautiously bright: soon the market will be there, the new businesses will be there, the big yellow construction vehicles will no longer be around to entertain Belmont’s toddlers.

I’m concerned though: it’s ominous that Foley showed up with legal counsel, and none of us really know what the Claflin lot is going to look like come July. Will parking be at a premium and tensions with local businesses running high? We don’t know what’s ahead.

So what should we do? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Shop at the Farmers’ Market this summer, and get there on foot or bike if you can. It’s good for you, good for the environment, and it helps alleviate the parking crunch.
  2. Be ready to write letters if the need arises (keeping tabs on the Farmers’ Market Facebook page is always a good idea, because you’ll also get news about the many good things going on there).
  3. When you do walk into a Belmont Center business on a Thursday afternoon, make a point of letting them know that you were there because you were shopping at the Farmers’ Market. Wave at Kevin Foley and show him your tote bag full of veggies while you’re at it. Belmont Center business owners need to know that good business means more than just having enough parking.

Jessie Bennett is a web design and social media consultant. She previously worked as Digital Content Developer and Blog Editor for Beacon Press, and was Assistant Editor of Rain Taxi Review of Books. She lives in Belmont with her spouse and two children.