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Volume 15, Issue 14 ~ April 5 - April 11, 2007

Spring’s Last Rites for Calvert Country Market

Rural County to be left with no farmers’ market

by Margaret Tearman

April 21, Calvert Country Market celebrates the arrival of spring and the start of the annual growing season with a weekend of festivities. But the Prince Frederick market won’t be around to feast on summer’s harvest. On June 30, when the five-year lease expires on the former A&P building that houses the county-subsidized market, the county is pulling the plug on its financial support.

In its March 6 meeting, the Calvert County Board of Commissioners voted three to two against renewing the lease.

In an effort to survive, the market vendors have formed the Southern Maryland Folk Art Center. The non-profit organization hoped to work out a new lease with the building’s owner, Dave Fegan, and carry on independently. But, according to Leslie Downs, current president of the vendors association, the rent and operating costs of the 17,000-plus-square-foot building is beyond them.

“Just the insurance alone would cost us more than the current rent and utilities combined,” Downs said.

The vendors have no apparent choice but to pack up and move out.

The market was established by Calvert County in 2002 to promote local agriculture and to provide Calvert farmers with an indoor market where they could sell their products year round.

In practice, the concept has evolved. Today, Calvert Country Market is less a local farmers’ market and more an outlet for hand-made crafts and sweets. Only six out of 22 vendors are considered agricultural, according to Calvert’s Department of Economic Development. Current vendors include a bakery, candy shop, doll-maker and a jewelry and bead store.

Nor are all of the vendors Calvert Countians. “I know three vendors live in St. Mary’s County,” Downs said.

Since the market’s opening in 2002, the county has spent $979,536 to operate it plus an additional $548,600 on improvements to the leased building.

It’s a good deal for the small businesses operating in the market. Today’s average cost for retail space in Calvert County is $25 to $30 per square foot. Under the county agreement, vendors pay only $16.80 per square foot. Six anchor vendors also pay a portion of the utilities. The county picks up the tab for the remaining utilities, insurance, maintenance and any difference in rent.

In the beginning, the Board of Commissioners committed to five years followed by a review. In those five years, the board expected the market, “to show movement to break even or to come close to breaking even,” said Commissioner Gerald ‘Jerry’ Clark. In the March 6 meeting, Clark said the market has shown “no movement to breaking even”; indeed, he said he believed it had actually “gone in the opposite direction.” Clark made the motion against renewing the lease.

Commissioner Susan Shaw agreed. “It is not the role of the government to compete with the private sector,” she said.

Shaw argues that subsidizing the small businesses in the country market is not fair to Calvert’s other small businesses; nor could she justify spending tax dollars to support a select few. “If these are viable businesses,” Shaw said, “they should be able to exist on their own.”

The vendors, now collectively known as the Southern Maryland Folk Art Center, are looking for new digs. “We need 3,000 square feet and ample parking,” says Downs. “We are actively — no make that desperately — looking for a new home.”

If the Center can find a home, it will continue to sell handmade crafts and treats. They also hope to preserve the original intent of the market. “We want to include farmers and fishermen,” says Downs. “We want to tell them to c’mon over and set up a truck market.”

The crafters of goods and goodies, alongside the few remaining farmers, will continue with business as usual right up to the last day of the Calvert Country Market.

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