Market and Rink: Community Gathering Places
What do a farmers’ market and an ice skating rink have in common? For one, they are both projects in which the Damariscotta River Association (DRA), one of the larger local land trusts in Maine, is involved. Working in eight towns along the Damariscotta Estuary, DRA seeks to protect not only the natural heritage of this coastal area, but also its cultural and historical heritage. To that end, two of their community projects, the Damariscotta Farmers’ Market, with whom they partner, and the Community Skating Rink, which was launched by the organization, have become central to the cultural fabric of the area. Some people in town have even expressed that these projects are the best thing to have happened within the community in a long time.
Both of these community gathering places are located on farms conserved by DRA. “We see it as right in line with our mission,” says Executive Director of DRA Steven Hufnagel. “Helping farms stay vital in our area ties in to land conservation and is an important component of working lands, especially in the Northeast. They’re intermediate between fully developed and wild land.” Attesting to the organization’s impact, the Damariscotta Region Chamber of Commerce recently awarded DRA the 2014 Organization Community Service Award for “enhancing the community and adding to the well-being and quality of life in the region.”
The Damariscotta Farmers’ Market
At 35 years old, the Damariscotta Farmers’ Market is one of the oldest in the state. Prior to relocating to the 115-acre Great Salt Bay Farm about eight years ago, the market had been in the middle of an unattractive strip at the edge of town on Business Route 1. When the former director of DRA, Mark DesMeules, approached the market to see if they wanted to relocate to the organization’s headquarters at no cost, they gladly accepted. Now the market overlooks the Great Salt Bay, the estuary that DRA protects. In addition to the organization’s headquarters, the farm is also home to an education center and a children’s garden and community garden, along with beautiful rolling fields and a wildlife preserve. Since relocating to this more attractive site, the weekly market has steadily grown to 18 vendors, most of whom are farmers. This support for farmers is intentional, says market manager Derek DeGeer and contrasts with the trend toward an increase in food processors at farmers’ markets. “We focus much more on the farmer producing and growing the food,” DeGeer says. “We’re very protective of that and make sure farmers get a fair retail price for their product.”
One of the challenges of their market, or any farmers’ market, DeGeer explains, is that local food is now more readily available in grocery stores and farm stands throughout the region, affecting their market share. But farmers’ markets offer something different from those other venues: community. “People come primarily to be entertained and to learn about the products they purchase,” DeGeer says. “They come to interact with the people making and growing their food in a way that you don’t get in other places.” A baker and a vendor at the market himself, DeGeer describes it as “a wonderful community, the best keep secret in town.”
He would like to see even more people coming out to support it, and for that reason it will be moving in 2015 to Round Top Farm, another DRA conserved property that is even more centrally located. The former dairy farm situated right on Route 1 will enable the market to be held there twice a week (currently it’s held on a second day in a different location from Great Salt Bay Farm). “Round Top Farm is more convenient and easier for people to find,” DeGeer says. “It will be a wonderful symbol for supporting agriculture right within our community.”
The Community Skating Rink
Although a very different kind of project, the ice rink in Damariscotta has been embraced by the local community in a similar way. It was conceived by former Board member and now volunteer chair of DRA’s Stewardship Committee, Matt Filler, a former college hockey player. “The town has no recreational facilities for children,” Filler says, “and I thought it would be great if there was a place for kids to skate in town.”
Filler set out to raise the money and assemble volunteers, and in just a short time brought in around $20,000.00 in local monetary support and $5–7,000.00 in in-kind donations. “It’s been a real community effort,” Filler explains. The local lumber company donated wood for the boards, and the local energy company put in a water line and installed the energy efficient lighting for evening skating. The fire department floods the 136 x 72 foot rink with water donated by the local water company, and a local oil company donates oil for the heater in the warming shack. Maintaining the ice is also a group effort. Filler organizes five volunteer maintenance teams who rotate and share the work.
Having just finished its third year, the rink has been extremely popular and is serving a real need in the community. “On weekends, it’s not unusual to see 50 to 75 people out skating,” Filler says. Located on Round Top Farm, the 12-acre farm that will soon be home to the farmers’ market as well, the rink is conveniently situated across from the middle school. “It’s a place where people can meet each other informally and be active outside,” Hufnagel says. “In the winter, people can feel pretty isolated here.” This past winter they held a Winter Carnival Weekend, attracting 150 people to the property for skating, cross country skiing, and other winter activities. It was so successful that it will become an annual event. The success of the rink project has in turn contributed to the success of the organization. “The rink has helped attract new members to DRA,” Filler says, “and also brings people out to our property.”