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After quiet close, Carlisle farmers market's future in doubt (video)

By - Last modified: February 14, 2011 at 12:08 PM

Mismanagement, inexperience and internal conflict deflated
dreams of a downtown farmers market returning to Carlisle.

Mismanagement, inexperience and internal conflict deflated dreams of a downtown farmers market returning to Carlisle.

The Carlisle Central Farmers Market quietly closed Jan. 31 after multiple vendors pulled out, leaving the former Sadler Health building at 117 N. Hanover St. vacant and the future of a Carlisle farmers market in doubt.

For more than 100 years, an outdoor farmers market graced the land where the Cumberland County courthouse stands at Carlisle's main square. Similar markets were set up on other streets around town too, but those incarnations never recaptured the nostalgic omnipresence of the old market. That was supposed to be the new market's mission.

It wasn't to be.

"We're committed to having something good for the downtown, but I've concluded that a (year-round, indoor) farmers market is not viable," said Chris Gulotta, executive director of the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority, which helped organize the market and brought state grant money to renovate the building it occupied.

Gulotta also solicited donations from private individuals and companies to help keep the market afloat, he said. But he stopped due to philosophical differences with the market's board of directors. The economy cut into the number and size of donations, he said.

Gulotta wouldn't elaborate on the differences with the board, but said neither he nor the redevelopment authority were the de facto management of the market. That responsibility was left to the directors and their market manager, former Carlisle Councilwoman Linda Cecconello. She is the second manager the board hired on a part-time basis.

Without donations, the market is projected to have an operating deficit of $50,000 for 2009, Gulotta said. Rent is $2,200 that has to be paid to the building owner, 3-T Investors, a real estate investment firm. It's owned by Middlesex Township businessman Kenneth Tuckey, owner of the Tuckey family of companies. Utilities were more than $1,500 for the building.

"Even if you take rent out of the equation, they're still running a deficit," Gulotta said.

Some board members blame Gulotta's disassociation for the market's collapse. Some vendors blame the board for its lack of focus and inability to make hard choices and Gulotta for what they said was the redevelopment authority's meddling.

"We were into our second year, and in a second year, you should be making money," said Karen Rhody, owner of Courthouse Common, a café and bistro on the town square.

Rhody invested about $10,000 on a second location at the market when it opened. By this year, she was breaking even on the venture. But reduced customer traffic and farmers pulling out of the market, along with the internal politics, convinced her it was time to pack up. She planned to make Jan. 31 her last day. The market would close permanently at 2 p.m. anyway.

She wasn't the only one.

Ted's Oven Ready Foods, a prepared seafood vendor from Perry County; The Pretzel Twist, a Carlisle-based baker; and Candy is Dandy, a candy retailer, all were planning to leave, Rhody said. That doomed the market's future viability and other vendors decided to quit as well, she said. The market was at about 40 percent capacity, she said. It has about 28 total spaces for vendors, according to its Web site.

The board of directors asked Cecconello on Monday to call vendors and ask if they wanted to open at the market for another two weeks. At press time she had not received responses. The board is scheduled to vote Feb. 12 on the market's future.

"It was just sort of a climax of things, where a number of (vendors) decided they were going to leave," said Chad Kimmel, the board's vice president and professor at Shippensburg University.

A number of vendors might have been interested in staying if there was a serious turnaround in market business, he said. Kimmel didn't think that would happen, he said. It got worse when Gulotta backed out, he said.

"There's that feeling that the risks and challenges are too great," he said.

If the market closes, the redevelopment authority would take over its lease until a new tenant can be found, Gulotta said. The farmers market board would walk free and clear.

Sandra Kay Miller, owner of Painted Hand Farm in Hopewell Township, Cumberland County, said the authority's takeover was imminent since June. Miller operated a produce stand at the market.

June was when the authority became more involved with the market, she said, to the point of trying to manage more operations.

Gulotta refuted that, saying he and the authority were only there to help.

The insistence that downtown revitalization be a focus of the market also chased away vendors, Miller said.

"We were told the focus was going to be on foods, locally grown foods and sustainably grown foods," she said. "And right from the start they blew their mission statement."

The bigger problem, Rhody said, was board members and market managers were inexperienced with farmers markets.

The board demonstrated inexperience when it decided to remove vendor representatives from its group, citing "conflict of interest," she said. Market leadership ignored suggestions from vendors, she said. The board also rejected some local food businesses to be vendors although they would fit with the market, she said.

Miller, Rhody and Ted Lloy - the owner of Ted's Oven Ready Foods - were the original vendors on the board.

As the board nears a Feb. 12 decision, some members are leaning toward killing the Carlisle Central Farmers Market as an entity and re-establishing a seasonal outdoor market, Kimmel said.

The past should be a lesson at this point, Kimmel said.

"Farmers markets are a beast in and of themselves," Kimmel said. "They're a unique enterprise ... but maybe everyone didn't understand the beast."

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Farmers market impact debatable

The impact the Carlisle Central Farmers Market had on downtown commerce is up for debate, said officials, vendors and businesses around the market.

That also means the impact its closing will have is up in the air.

Some of the early success at the market's 2007 opening could be attributed to the buzz around the opening, said Chris Gulotta, executive director of the Cumberland County Redevelopment Authority. The authority helped renovate the building that housed the market.

"We had a pretty good start. Foot traffic in the fall was very good. I had one restaurant owner tell me that when the market was open, they had good traffic," he said.

But success did not carry through to 2009, said Karen Rhody, owner of the Courthouse Common café and bistro at the square in Carlisle. She had a stand at the market, too.

The market's closing won't do much for downtown commerce, she said.

"In order for it to affect downtown, it has to grow to a point where you're bringing people from outside. It never got to that point," she said.

Melissa Colucci owns Colucci & Company, a hand-crafted jewelry and gift store next to the farmers market. She said there might be some reduced traffic with the closing, but she didn't plan to do anything different. She already was keeping less inventory due to the economy, and sales were up over last year, she said.

"If you're honest with yourself, you know it's going to affect you some," Colucci said.

However, economic impact is exactly the wrong measure of success for a farmers market, said Sandra Kay Miller, a market vendor and owner of Painted Hand Farm. After all, the market is closed and unlikely to return to the indoor venue it occupied for the past year and a half.

"If you focus on the food, the economic development will come," Miller said.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com


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