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Ellicott City farmers market seeks to grow community spirit

With its historic Main Street and sloping hills lined with mill houses, old Ellicott City is known for its quaint beauty, which attracts scores of tourists each year. But some businessowners want to make the historic area attractive to those who live and work there, not just tourists.

Kim Kepnes, an Ellicott City resident and the owner of the Little French Market in old town Ellicott City, has been working to coordinate a new Saturday farmers market in the historic district that she hopes will draw locals and tourists alike.

"As a resident, what I found is we don't talk to our neighbors enough," Kepnes said one recent Saturday morning as she sat in front of her bakery, watching shoppers wander past market booths set up in the courtyard of Tonge Row.

Saturdays, she said, are "a time when time slows down. And what a place for time to slow down, in Ellicott City."

The Old Town Market may be Howard County's newest, but it has roots in another community tradition that Kepnes helped to establish five years ago, in 2009.

Earlier that year, she had opened the Little French Market, a cozy shop that sells coffee and baked goods, but wanted to branch out. Along with the owners of Randy & Steve's next door, she decided to try her hand at launching a Sunday market in front of her store.

Held once a month, the Second Sunday market grew into an event where community members could catch up.

"I would see more neighbors at the Second Sunday market than anywhere else," Kepnes said.

Then, last fall, news broke that two Howard County farmers markets – one at the East Columbia library branch and the other at the Glenwood library – would be shutting down for good when market season came to a close in November. Later, some vendors from the East Columbia market decided to continue to sell their products at the location on Thursdays, although they are no longer supported by the Howard County Farmers' Market Board.

Kepnes got a call from Rose Caulder, the market manager at Glenwood and a recurring vendor at Second Sunday. Caulder is the owner of Breezy Willow, a small, family organic farm located in West Friendship. She wanted to know if Kepnes would be interested in helping move the Glenwood market to Ellicott City.

"When they closed the two markets, we had vendors who were displaced, small businesses that needed a home," Caulder said. Kepnes, she added, "is always trying to bring people to Ellicott City, and we needed a place for our farmers. We looked at it as a positive thing for both ends."

In order for the idea to be viable, however, the new market needed to be weekly.

Together, and with some help from the county's Economic Development Authority, Caulder and Kepnes came up with a plan for the Old Town Market, invited vendors and acquired the necessary permits. On May 10, the new farmers market got its launch.

Unique offerings

A month after the market began, Saturday shoppers perused the booths sprinkled around Tonge Row, sampling fresh feta cheese made of sheep's milk as harp and guitar duo The Mighty Kelltones played Celtic and Appalachian music in the background.

The Old Town Market assembles 16 vendors, offering an assorted selection of wares that Caulder calls "unique, like Ellicott City." In addition to fresh produce and meats, vendors sell baked goods, honey, Thai spices, pickles, bread, flowers, ice cream and salsa.

The market is also distinct from others in the county in that it hosts two vendors who sell prepared foods: Saturday shoppers can spring for a lunch of wood-fired pizza from River House Pizza Co., or smoked beef brisket from Paulie's Pit Beef. Caulder said the market's proximity to other shops makes it easier to plug in all the equipment needed for cooking.

And while the rest of the county's markets are held in parking lots removed from other shopping – with the exception of the Sunday market at Oakland Mills Village Center – Kepnes said part of what she hopes will be the lure of the Old Town Market is that it's located just off of Main Street.

"This community has something that no other market event like it can offer, and that's the vista of town and a combination of small markets," she said. "It's not a tent, a table and a parking lot where we're encouraging people to grab and go. They're staying."

Parking concerns

Despite Kepnes' enthusiasm, not all of the merchants along Main Street are supportive of the market.

At a recent meeting of Ellicott City's Historic District Partnership, some said they were concerned that traffic was deterring customers from visiting their shops.

"Saturday is the one day that's vital to the businesses," said Sally Tennant, who owns Discoveries on lower Main Street. "Having anything that's contrary to the interests of the business community unnecessarily may make the difference" between a thriving business and a struggling one.

"Normally, on a nice Saturday, I open at 11 and I start right away," said Sara Arditti, who owns Still Life Gallery in midtown. "[On a recent market Saturday], I did not make a single sale until 1:30 in the afternoon. This is affecting my bottom line and the bottom line of other merchants in this town."

Arditti said a petition she circulated among Main Street merchants had collected 31 signatures opposing the Saturday market.

Other merchants, however, said their businesses had seen more traffic since the market opened.

"As long as the farmers market is going on, we're going to need another person working on Saturday morning," said Tammy Beideman, who owns Sweet Elizabeth Jane on lower Main Street. "I looked at my transaction total, and we were up."

Some merchants urged Kepnes to move the market to the courthouse parking lot or to move it to another day. But Kepnes said that would defeat the purpose of trying to get residents to patronize the historic district.

"This is about residents wanting to be part of the community and the community people coming to town," she said.

Matthew Milani, who owns The Rumor Mill in Tiber Alley, said merchants should use the market as an opportunity to be proactive.

"[Kepnes] is bringing people to town," he said. "Go out there, greet them and get them."

In response to merchant complaints and to dilute traffic, Kepnes recently decided to move some of the market's vendors across the street to the Wine Bin's parking lot. She said she hoped splitting parking among two lots would help ease any problems, as well as encourage customers to get walking down Main Street.

Steve Lafferty, director of special projects for Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning, said parking data showed Ellicott City's lots D and F have been near capacity the past few market Saturdays, but, he noted, lots were also full or near full later in the afternoon, even after the market had closed.

"I think it's hard to say it was solely attributable to the market's activity," he said of the traffic.

'This is the future'

Shoppers and merchants interviewed at the market focused on the goods and atmosphere.

Keefe and Heather Hogan, who recently moved to Ellicott City from Bowie, brought their two kids, Aiden, 9, and Layla, 5, to the market with them for the second week in a row.

"I know that as the season grows, it's going to grow. I think it's a great way to bring people out," Keefe Hogan said.

Debbie Derwart and Barbara Costello, both of Ellicott City, were drawn by the promise of live music.

"I think it's a wonderful service that Ellicott City does for the community," Derwart said. "We're really lucky to have this."

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"It's a delightful day to spend strolling," Costello said, adding that she and Derwart planned to visit the stalls in the Wine Bin's parking lot, as well. "But I have to confess – I'm usually driving through."

Columbia resident Yelena Betz, said she liked the "openness" and the "relaxed" vibe. When compared with the Columbia farmers markets, she said, "I like this market better because there are more vendors."

Vendors said their sales were generally strong.

"So far it's been good," said Colleen Histon, who owns Shepherds Manor Creamery and makes cheese and soaps of sheep's milk. "It's surprising to me, actually; it's better than I expected."

Jeff Torres, who was selling Cliff's Salsa in the Wine Bin's parking lot, said he's participated in a lot of markets. While it's still a bit early to tell how this one will pan out, he said, "I like the traffic so far."

Jim Grinder Sr., who was manning the booth at meat vendor Orchard Breeze, said that while the first three weeks were busy, "this week there's not as much" traffic.

While the market is still in its early stages, Kepnes said she'd like to see it "grow as much as [it] can." She envisions partnering with other Main Street businesses to encourage sidewalk sales, a flea market and guest chefs.

Last week, she got some encouragement from State Comptroller Peter Franchot, who came to visit her business and learn about the market.

"People appreciate places where they can come together," Franchot said afterward.

He likened it to 19th-century markets that united community members on their weekend shopping excursions.

"This is a throwback," Franchot said. "In the 19th century, places like this were the center of the community, they were pulsing."

And, he added, "I'm here to say this is the future."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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