“What would Betty do?”


photo/Sean Wilkinson
photo/Sean Wilkinson

“What Would Betty Do?” 
Public Market vendors organize to save their space 

By Chris Busby

Vendors at the Portland Public Market held a meeting this morning to organize a campaign they’ve dubbed “Save the Market.” Their slogan: “What Would Betty Do?”

The late philanthropist Elizabeth “Betty” Noyce donated over $9 million to build the market on Preble Street in 1998. Last week, trustees of the Libra Foundation – the charitable trust set up to manage Noyes’ fortune – told the Portland Press Herald they intend to sell the market in a mega-package that includes all of their remaining downtown Portland properties, including the office towers of Canal Plaza, the Maine Bank & Trust building on Congress Street, and a parking garage on Fore Street. The asking price will reportedly top $65 million.

Market vendors were upset to learn of the building’s potential sale through a newspaper article, but not especially surprised, given that Libra has made major changes and cuts in the market’s management, reduced lease terms from up to three years to one year, and slashed the facility’s marketing budget and promotional efforts in the past 12 months. Most vendors believe that if the unprofitable market is sold to a private investor, they will be forced to leave and the building will be converted for another use.

Now they’re fighting back. The vendors are organizing a petition drive, setting up a Web site, and networking with neighborhood groups, agricultural organizations and others in an effort to save the market and their businesses. They want to explore ways the market can survive an ownership change. 

Ron Spinella, chair of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, has already expressed interest in working to preserve the market, which is located in Bayside.

In a striking reversal of circumstances, former market director Ted Spitzer is now among the most vocal critics of Libra, the foundation that hired him to help create the market almost a decade ago. Spitzer resigned his position in October of 2001 following months of acrimony between vendors and management. He co-owns Maine Pantry, a vendor of Maine specialty foods in the market, and works as a consultant on public market projects nationwide.

Spitzer called Libra’s decision to sell the building – and the way the foundation handled that decision – “a huge slap to Portland.”

“Certainly the way the vendors heard about [the pending sale] was very distressing and disrespectful to people who have invested a lot of their lives, a lot of their resources, into making [the market] a success. To act cavalier about that shows a mean-spiritedness.”

Libra Foundation president and board member Owen Wells could not be reached for comment. The Press Herald reported earlier today that Libra officials said they would review any petitions or other documents and requests submitted by the vendors. 

Since Spitzer’s successor, Greg Dove, resigned as the market’s director early last year, the market has been managed by CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Company, a prominent commercial real estate firm that manages Libra’s other Portland properties. The Boulos Company is also brokering the sale of those properties, and would assumedly make several million dollars in commission if the $65 million-plus deal – the largest and most lucrative in the city’s history, observers say — goes through. 

Boulos could not be reached for comment. Lynne Greene, the assistant property manager with the Boulos Company now in charge of the market, also could not be reached for comment. A market vendor said the management office has been locked and Greene and others in her office went on vacation shortly after the sale was announced in the press.

Spitzer said Boulos representatives were assuring vendors that rumors of a sale were unfounded as recently as a few months ago. 

In an article last week, Wells told the Press Herald that Libra had held its Portland properties – including the market – “longer than we had intended.” 

Last Oct. 20 marked seven years since the market opened its doors. Asked if he was ever informed that Libra planned to sell the market after six years of operation, Spitzer said, “no, never.” But he now feels a sale is appropriate, provided the market is sold to a party dedicated to preserving its mission of providing an outlet for retailers of Maine products.

“It doesn’t make sense to have Libra own the market,” Spitzer said. “They aren’t interested in running it – running it well.”

Spitzer said the operations’ biggest expenses were paying management staff and marketing, followed by utility costs. Libra has made deep cuts to both management and marketing expenses, and Spitzer said he is unclear how much money the market is losing now.

In another striking comment, Spitzer said the market “should not be running restaurants [and] should not be running stalls.” Spitzer himself was instrumental in the market’s decision to take over failed stalls in February 2000. He headed the non-profit, Libra-backed entity called Farm to Market Inc. that operated as many as eight stalls at one point in late 2001.

The Libra Foundation – acting through the market’s management and via Gillespie Farms, a New Gloucester operation it purchased — currently operates or controls three prominent stalls (two Gillespie produce stalls and the market’s sole butcher shop) and a restaurant, Maverick’s Family Steakhouse, that occupies an entire wing of the building. 

Bill Milliken, co-owner of Maine Beer and Beverage, suggested that the market could make more money if replaced Maverick’s with several new, rent-paying vendors. He also suggested that the market and its vendors alike would profit if Gillespie Farms’ two stalls were in private hands. 

The produce stalls receive very little business, said Milliken, one of the market’s few remaining original tenants. He said Libra has justified keeping the two produce stands at either end of the market by saying Noyes wanted customers to see produce when they entered the building. 

Another rule allegedly made according to Noyes’ vision precludes Milliken from selling hats and t-shirts at his stall – products associated with the Maine beer companies whose products he retails. Milliken said the market’s history of efforts to micromanage vendors’ businesses have hurt business overall inside the vaulted wood and glass space. 

Milliken said he contacted Boulos Company CEO Joe Boulos earlier today, and was told that Boulos would be willing to put potential buyers in contact with the vendors’ group. Milliken also said Boulos expects to find a buyer soon, and the deal could close within six to eight months.

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