New greenmarket aims to be community hothouse

United Farmers Market of Maine opening May 27
By Ethan Andrews | May 18, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews United Farmers Market of Maine owner Paul Naron in the 8,000-square-foot market hall of the new downtown venture.

Belfast — Paul Naron has ideas about what makes a good farmers' market. On a folding table inside the headquarters of his new venture, United Farmers Market of Maine, he set out color copies of photos he took at farmers' markets around the world, showing both good and bad examples of how to display one's wares.

The idea, he said, is that farmers are farmers first, so they might need some help with retail.

In one of the photos, a young man in a turban smiled from behind a table arrayed with a grid of shrink-wrapped trays of Indian food, apparently oblivious to being an example of poor space management. Good examples were more numerous: crafts stacked high and dense on shelves in Fredericton, New Brunswick; colorful fruits and vegetables overflowing from a farm stand in Zimbabwe.

Naron bought the 29,000-square-foot Spring Street building last year and quickly converted it to an impressive multipurpose facility, gutting interior offices and cutting away large sections of the exterior wall to install windows overlooking a prime view of the bay.

The centerpiece is an 8,000-square-foot farmers' market that will offer vegetables, meat and poultry, fish and seafood, plants, flowers, baked goods, value-added products and prepared food from 65 vendors.

The vendor list includes a broad swath of local farms and food producers. There's a soapmaker, a local coffee roaster, a jeweler, a potter and a cabinet maker. Jamaican and Laotian food will be available for sale, along with ice cream and baked goods.

A grand opening is planned for May 27. The market will be open on Saturdays, which Naron said is typical of other successful markets he has seen. He even bought a cast iron farm bell on eBay to ring at the start of the market day.

The point of being open one day a week, he said, is to limit the amount of time farmers and craftspeople have to spend on retail so they can continue to grow in their work as skilled producers.

When he announced his plans last year, a common question was how it would affect the weekly Belfast Farmers' Market now held at Waterfall Arts. Naron said he's not looking to compete with that market, which is held on Fridays, not Saturdays, and he hopes some vendors will be involved in both.

For his part, he hopes the combination of a large market and a central location in what he jokingly termed "the Manhattan of Waldo County" will attract more visitors, which would benefit the vendors.

Likewise, the wide variety of vendors could be a boon to visitors. Naron gave the example of a couple coming to the market because she wants kale and he wants ice cream.

"We want both ends of the spectrum, and other ends," he said.

Though the market is the central venture, Naron called an adjoining room "the soul of the place." The corner space overlooks Belfast Common and the bay with views toward Islesboro and Castine. Naron and his crew built simple tables and placed them in a such a way as to encourage visitors to stick around.

"It's about getting people to enjoy themselves, break bread with their neighbors, et cetera," he said, adding that the space could work particularly well in the winter.

Naron moved to Belfast seven years ago from Coconut Grove, Fla., where he ran a successful hardware store and lumber yard. The house he moved into sat across the street from what was then a showroom for local window makers Mathews Brothers.

The company, which now operates out of a factory on Perkins Road, closed the showroom several years ago, and put the building up for sale. During that time, it was eyed by a local group that was trying to start a performing arts center.

Naron wasn't trying to do anything — he liked sailing and was attracted to Belfast as a community — but the old showroom was there every day and Naron realized it would make a great farmers' market.

"I kept looking at this building," he said. "It was an idea that wouldn't go away. I had to try it."

The building is larger than the market needs right away and Naron has entertained, and often granted, requests from outside groups looking to use parts of the building.

He cut an opening into the wall of a raised space adjoining the market hall and installed curtains to make a simple stage. The farm stands, tables signs, coolers and other accessories of the farmers' market are designed to be moved easily aside to make a large concert space.

That version of the space was host to a fundraiser by the downtown business group Our Town Belfast that included a performance by the popular Americana band The Ghost of Paul Revere and brought 450 people to the building, Naron said. Recently, the Belfast Maskers theater group held dinner theater events in part of a 6,000-square-foot wing on the opposite side of the central hall.

That section is divided into several large rooms and includes an unfinished lower level. Naron dubbed it "Bay View Point" with the idea that it could be rented out for weddings, conferences and other events.

Despite requests of all kinds, Naron said he's not willing to commit any part of the building to regular outside events until he knows the potential of the farmers' market. "If this is a raging success, and we have 30 other vendors who want to join …" he said. "I don't want to cut my legs off."

Naron has been front and center during the development of the farmers' market, but he was quick to dismiss the idea that he's a developer, or that he should be front and center of anything.

"It's in my head," he conceded with a laugh. "But I've convinced some people to try it."

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