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Milton Gathering Place plans farmers market

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Neil Johnson
April 4, 2014

MILTON—The Gathering Place plans to host a farmers market this summer, but some tourism officials wonder if another site in the city would be more likely to lure tourists.

The Gathering Place stepped forward just as Milton's city tourism committee began looking at a way to replace a privately run farmers market that will no longer operate.

Gathering Place Director Dave Fisher said The Gathering Place, a private senior citizen event and program center, plans to run a farmers market out of its parking lot.

Fisher said the center's advisory board plans to decide Thursday whether to go forward with the plan, but he said The Gathering Place has about 10 vendors already interested. The market would run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays from June 8 through the beginning of September, Fisher said. 

Fisher shared the plan with the city's tourism committee last week after he saw the committee had slated a discussion on a potential Milton farmers market. He said plans had been in the works since last fall, after Patty's Plants owner Patty Bailey decided to close her organic plant shop and greenhouse, which was located at a former church off Janesville Street near Milton's eastside downtown.

In 2012 and 2013, Bailey had run a Sunday farmers market on private land next to the plant shop. Fisher said he talked to Bailey about The Gathering Place's plan, and Bailey helped the center get in touch with her market's vendors.

“We think if we can get 10, 15, 20 vendors, the market would support itself,” Fisher said.

The farmers market plan is part of an effort by The Gathering Place, 715 Campus St., to branch out in the services it offers, Fisher said.

The center recently bought two and a half acres adjacent to its three-acre campus, and its in the early stages of plans to create an outdoor event area there for weddings and other functions, Fisher said.

The city's tourism committee, which is tasked with finding ways to draw tourism traffic into Milton in the face of the Highway 26 bypass, had wanted to discuss a potential farmers market.

Nancy Lader, a member of the city council and the committee, said groups had tried in the last 10 years to run farmers markets in Goodrich Park, which is adjacent to the city's eastside downtown, but those markets had “sort of withered and died.”

She said the committee has loosely determined that Goodrich Park wouldn't be a good spot for a farmers market, even though it's closer than the Gathering Place to the main flow of traffic off the bypass.

City officials tend to view downtown parking as a premium. Other proposed events, including a traveling hot rod car show a national group wants to bring to Milton, are tied up in red tape, in part because there is limited parking at Goodrich Park and in the eastside downtown.

“You have all the little pee-wee games and soccer games there, the sports fields are being used. With those, you've eaten up all the parking,” Lader said.

She said having a farmers market at The Gathering Place would remove a fight over parking, although The Gathering Place does allow an adjacent church to use part of its lot, officials said.

“It's a private lot,” Lader said. “You're not stepping on anyone's toes.”

From Lader's perspective, nothing is set in stone for a farmers market.

“It's been nothing more than good will conversation with the city, but there's eagerness there from The Gathering Place. That much is clear,” she said.

JoLynn Burden, director of the Milton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the tourism committee and business stakeholders were in early discussions over a farmers market in the last two weeks when Fisher came forward.

“We told him, 'If you could organize it and run it, that'd be great. We'd love it,'” Burden said.

Milton House Director Cori Olson said the tourism committee had sent her a text message during a recent meeting asking her if the Milton House, the city's historical society, would want to run a farmers market on its grounds, which are located along Janesville Street east of Goodrich Park.

“I said we'd be fine with allowing the market, but we couldn't take the responsibility of running it,” Olson said.

Olson, who is not a member of the tourism committee, said she appreciates the Gathering Place offering to run a market. But she said it strikes her that either the eastside downtown or Merchant Row, the city's Westside downtown, could be a better location because a market could bleed-off customers to local businesses.

“It's unfortunate. The Gathering Place is located a little out of the way,” Olson said.

The most direct route for travelers to reach the Gathering Place is to get off the bypass and take East St. Mary Street a few blocks west to Campus Street, which is in a residential area south of downtown on the former Milton College campus.

Olson suggested the city could look at locating a market in one of the vacant lots along the Highway 59/Highway 26 corridor where bypass traffic enters and exits. She suggested a farmers market there would be more visible and easier to find.

Fisher said he thinks a market at The Gathering Place would be easy for local customers to find, and any travelers the market brought in would be a bonus.

“From a city standpoint, we're a known location. From a tourism standpoint, if they find us, anything we draw, they're in town,” Fisher said.

Fisher said a farmers market would bring in a small profit for The Gathering Place, but that's not the main focus. He said The Gathering Place would charge about $7 for a 15-foot-by-15-foot space at the market. That's about half of what most farmers markets charge, he said.

He hopes the market can draw interest to The Gathering Place as more than a senior center. He's already talked to Milton School District officials about allowing students clubs to run car washes at the market, and there's even talk about student music events and performances.

“Everybody's grandparents and parents could come to that and be entertained or shop the market while they get their car washed,” he said.

The bigger question, and its one The Gathering Place board must answer, is if there is enough volunteer interest to run the market.

“It's not just having the space for a market. It's got to have volunteers to run it, people willing to give up four hours every Sunday for seven weeks. That's the challenge,” Fisher said.



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