Teri Thompson-Christie has no intention of walking away from Farmers Fare, the market, food production facility, meeting place, restaurant and coffee bar on Route 90 that opened in September 2009 and closed 18 months later, on Jan. 1.

“We are looking for the right team, or group, or individual to reopen Farmers Fare,” she said.

Thompson-Christie said her company, Sovia LLC, has retained Maine Business Brokers to search for a stable person or organization with experience to purchase or lease the property and continue the work that she began. She said there has been some interest generated but it is too early to discuss details.

Thompson-Christie said managing Farmers Fare was: “not what I was called to do. I didn’t understand what I was getting into. I took on too many things at once and did not have enough experience.”

After opening the business, she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic autoimmune disorder.

“Health-wise, I can’t be in that situation,” she said. Now she is working on diet and naturopathic ways to help her medical condition.

When Farmers Fare opened and accepted Community Development Block Grant funds from the town of Rockport, the project appeared to be the long anticipated realization of a locavore’s dream.

On Nov. 3, 2009, Rockport voters, by a vote of 1,127 to 561, approved a CDBG application for an economic development program grant, on behalf of Farmers Fare, in the amount of $100,000. The money, derived from federal sources and funneled through the state, was to be used for working capital to advance the company’s private label and specialty foods production at the Route 90 facility. Conditions of the grant required that Farmers Fare create the equivalent of five full-time non-retail positions for workers involved in producing value-added local products.

Almost two years later, the large wooden building has gone quiet and owners Peter Christie and Teri Thompson-Christie are far from meeting the goals they set, goals that the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and Rockport Planner and Community Development Director Tom Ford said must be accomplished before Dec. 18.

Farmers Fare’s contracted grant administrator Chris Shrum said that the responsibility for documenting Farmers Fare’s performance in regard to the grant belonged to the company’s owners.

“I gave them forms a number of times and they never completed the forms,” said Shrum. He said Christie and Thompson-Christie are required to prove that more than half of the jobs they created in their specialty foods department went to people whose incomes met low- or moderate-income standards prior to being hired by Farmers Fare. That meant getting previous years’ tax returns from the employees.

“We have met the requirements of the grant,” Christie said. “Our only issue now is the paperwork necessary to close the grant. It was a matter of designating a staff person to get the information.” He said there were turnovers in management.

“The grant process is challenging,” he said. “It takes time and there is a lot of paperwork.”

According to the website at hud.gov, states administer CDBG funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for cities with populations of fewer than 50,000 and counties with populations of fewer than 200,000.

Grants to aid needy support area businesses

In the past five years 26 Community Development Block Grants have been received by Waldoboro and municipalities in Knox County.

Seven were designed to directly impact low- and moderate-income residents by providing down-payment assistance in Camden; rehabilitation loan assistance, safety-related repair or housing replacement in Rockland, Thomaston and Washington; and in-home nursing in Rockland.

Another grant assisted with culinary and nutrition education and re-use of the A.D. Gray School in Waldoboro.

Eleven grants provided funds for improvements to public infrastructure.

These included public pier construction in Isle au Haut; a redevelopment bond for the former Maine State Prison site in Thomaston; removal of “blight conditions” in Waldoboro’s downtown; and eight grants to Rockland for sidewalk and streetscape improvements, flood mitigation and repairs to the Community Recreation Center.

Two municipal grants went to improve downtown business facades in Rockland and one such grant went to Thomaston.

Ann Matlack in the office of Rockland’s city manager said such improvements are targeted to areas where low- and moderate-income residents live or to amenities that segment of the population uses.

Department of Economic and Community Development Director of Marketing and Communications Elaine Scott said businesses adjacent to streetscape and façade improvements had to meet the grant requirement that more than 50 percent of those hired be members of low- or moderate-income households.

“The grants go to the municipalities and the municipalities pick the businesses,” she said.

According to the Maine Office of Community Development’s website at meocd.org, the Community Enterprise Grant Program provides funds to “assist in innovative solutions to problems faced by micro-businesses, facilitate good management practices, business façade improvements and streetscapes in downtown and village areas.”

CDBG funded activities must meet one of the following national objectives.

  • Benefit low- and moderate-income persons;
  • Prevent or eliminate of slum and blight conditions; or
  • Meet community development needs having a particular urgency.

Specifically, the Community Enterprise Grant Program requires recipients to demonstrate at least one of the following national objectives.

  • Benefit 51 percent or greater low- or moderate-income employees in a recipient’s business;
  • Prevent or eliminate slum or blighting conditions;
  • Benefit an existing or developing business that has, or will have five or fewer employees, one of which owns the enterprise, and whose family income is low or moderate.

Four individual businesses in the region were CDBG recipients, through the municipalities in which they operate.

In 2006, Rockland accepted $100,000 and disbursed those funds to Oak Island Seafood.

“Part of the agreement was they would create at least five full-time jobs with at least 51 percent of those jobs taken by low- and moderate-income individuals,” said Matlack. “As of February 2008, they had reached that goal. The terms of the grant were met and grants were closed out Feb. 8, 2008.”

In December 2009, Oak Island shut its doors in Rockland’s Industrial Park, laying off 20 workers. According to Rockland Community Development Director Rodney Lynch, Oak Island Seafood withdrew a second CDBG application for $10,000 because its wage and benefits package did not meet the grant’s requirement that the company offer employees at least $34,000 annually in pay and benefits.

In 2010 Nuthatch Productions received a Business Assistance grant for working capital to create a clothing manufacturing business at 412 Main St. in Rockland.

Rockport has received two CDBG approvals, one for the 2009 business assistance grant application for Farmers Fare, and another for a 2010 Business Assistance grant application for Avena Botanicals.

Finally, in 2009 Rockport applied for and received a Community Planning grant to establish Legacy Rockport for the purpose of assisting low- and moderate-income individuals with education costs, social services, summer recreation, and other needs.

“The primary statutory objective of the CDBG program is to develop viable communities by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment and by expanding economic opportunities, principally for persons of low- and moderate-income,” HUD states. “The state must ensure that at least 70 percent of its CDBG grant funds are used for activities that benefit low- and moderate-income persons over a one-, two-, or three-year time period.”

Funds are generally used to prevent or eliminate slums or blight. The funds are distributed by states to units of general local government.

In the case of Farmers Fare, the state gave $100,000 to the town of Rockport. That money was provided to Sovia LLC, with the town retaining an indemnity/surety agreement on the property.

Shrum’s position of grant administrator is required for all CDBG grants. As such, he is under contract to Farmers Fare. In exchange for the federal cash, Shrum said, Farmers Fare was to provide five positions that met the following criteria:

  • Jobs were for specialty value-added food production and could not be retail positions.
  • Jobs had to pay a “livable wage” for the region, of at least $14 an hour plus benefits.
  • Fifty-one percent of jobs had to be given to low- to moderate-income individuals,  those earning 80 percent or less of county median household income, which was $44,619 in 2009. That would make the qualifying household income about $35,695.

Shrum said that in its year of operation, Farmers Fare had not met those requirements.

“The jobs they created when they were in operation were retail,” he said. Shrum said one or two positions in the sausage-making department might have met the grant’s criteria.

Ford said concerns were “premature.” He said the deadline for completing grant requirements was Dec. 18.

“There’s no default until that time,” said Ford.

Ford wrote to Christie and Thompson-Christie in April, asking them to contact him regarding the property and the grant. He said he had a brief conversation with Christie when he was at the town office to vote June 14, and that Christie was amenable to meeting.

“I’m not sure he represents the company,” said Ford. He said he hoped the meeting would take place after Shrum returns to the area from a business trip, later this month.

On May 27, Christie said he was surprised that Shrum did not contact him when the letter arrived and that he just learned about it in the middle of May.

“It was a letter directed to the Christies,” said Shrum. “They’re the business owner. They’re responsible. I was there to help facilitate a process.” He said he made the necessary forms available to the company’s “various business managers.”

“At no point did I get communication back regarding the documentation,” said Shrum.

 

Enter a recession

Thompson-Christie said Farmers Fare was stymied by the recession. She said workers hired at wages of $15 to $30 per hour balked when asked to take a pay cut.

He said the grant was helpful, but payroll was $27,000 every two weeks.

Thompson-Christie said in an email message June 19 that her company was “currently resolving all Farmers Fare-related business accounts, including MEMIC.” At the time the business closed, some payments to MEMIC for workers compensation were still outstanding.

“It broke my heart,” Thompson-Christie said. “I feel like all I was doing was giving, giving, giving.”

“The holidays came and I felt the payroll had been 70 percent of every dollar that came into the door,” she said.

Owner says town won’t pay

Thompson-Christie said that, while $100,000 is a lot of money, in relative terms to the cost of doing business, it was not.

Another major problem was getting the right manager for the complex business structure that evolved from her vision.

“The business plan worked, but I was so tired and stressed,” she said. “To run that place you need a team of five or six people who can cohesively work together. It’s a community inside a community in that building.” She said the project included a butcher shop, retail farmers market and cafe, and that more than 250 local farmers brought their wares to Farmers Fare.

If the requisite jobs exist on Dec. 18 and Shrum and DECD approve, then “they will have met the requirements of the grant,” said Ford. In that case, the state would consider the grant criteria to have been met, and no money would be owed. If Farmers Fare fails to meet those goals, however, the town of Rockport would owe the state $100,000.

“The premise was to take locally produced or grown agricultural products and add value,” said Ford. “That was their proposal and we’re still in the process.”

Shrum said Christie and Thompson-Christie would incur no penalties for failing to meet the terms of the grant. He said unless the business was reconstituted there was no option other than to pay back the money.

“December is a long way off,” said Thompson-Christie.

“In essence this would have been an interest-free loan [if didn’t create jobs],” he said. If they were successful, “it was a gift,” said Shrum.

In addition to the $100,000 mortgage to the town of Rockport, Farmers Fare has a mortgage with Maine Bank and Trust, said Thompson-Christie.

“The mortgage is less than a half a million dollars and it’s appraised at $2.5 to $3 million,” she said.

According to the property card on file at the Rockport Assessor’s Office, Farmers Fare’s 87,000-square-foot building and five acres of land have an appraised and assessed value of a little more than $1.2 million.

Personal property such as equipment, furniture and fixtures add up to about $81,000 more in value, according to the town’s assessment.

“They haven’t cooperated with furnishing us with a list of personal property, so that’s all estimated,” Rockport Assessor Kerry Leichtman said June 20. He said the building’s value was based on the replacement cost for a new building if the existing one was totally destroyed.

“The land values are plugged in equitably across town,” said Leichtman. “It depends on location and the quality of the parcel.”

“It’s a small mortgage,” said Christie. “We paid for just about everything. The mortgage is minuscule compared to the appraisal value of the property. The mortgage was taken to build credit.”

He said the CDBG was a matching grant, that he and Thompson-Christie more than met that requirement, and that they would pay the $100,000 back if they failed to meet the grant requirements.

“I don’t plan on a business not being there,” said Thompson-Christie. “As far as the December deadline is concerned, the town of Rockport will never pay the $100,000 for me. I’m not going to be a story like that.”

Shrum said Farmers Fare’s “vision was solid.”

“They had a good team with a lot of experience,” he said. “I would hate to see the experience of Farmers Fare taint people’s idea of the grant. Starting a small business is a challenge in Maine.”

Thompson-Christie said that even if she was unable to accomplish her dream, she hoped someone would step forward to fulfill her vision for Farmers Fare.

“It cannot be taken over by a garage,” she said. “I would rather wait for the right people or person.” She said if she could find those people she would support their efforts.

“My part was to create it,” she said.

Currently, the following message is posted at the Farmers Fare home page at farmersfare.com.

“Stay tuned for news of Farmers Fare! We are currently restructuring our operations and considering various options including the lease of our building to local organizations and businesses that share Farmers Fare’s vision of community, teaching, learning and, of course, the joy of food!”

“For lease information, please contact Mark Koshliek of Maine Business Brokers at 207-775-1957 x 101 or mark@mainebusinessbrokers.com,” the website states.

“Owners Teri and Peter can be reached at teri@farmersfare.com or peter@farmersfare.com. Thank you all so much for your inquiries.”

The property is in Rockport’s mixed business residential district.

“That’s our wide-open zoning district,” said Ford. “It’s a great location, has great lines of sight in both directions and is one of the most desirable in Rockport.”

“I loved it,” Thompson-Christie said. “I loved every single bit of that place. It was an effort of total love and it broke my heart every time we had to let someone go. My hope is it will reopen and grow.”

She said she wanted Farmers Fare to be a place where people would be happy. On June 16, she said she was working with musicians and others in the community to plan a public celebration, to be held later this summer at Farmers Fare.

“I would give it away tomorrow to the community,” she said.

Thomson-Christie’s vision for Farmers Fare

The Farmers Fare building was constructed using Maine wood, materials and workers.

Thompson-Christie patterned the business after a butcher shop she frequented in Italy. She said the shop was a place where neighbors congregated to discuss last night’s dinner or tomorrow’s lunch and to share local news. Everything from the food people would eat to the plates they would eat it from would be from Maine, Thompson-Christie said, when the market opened in 2009.

She envisioned a place where customers would meet friends and chat, take a blanket and sit in the field, or spend the day using the free WiFi. For children, there was to be an indoor play area and, eventually, a playground.

People wouldn’t feel obligated to buy anything, Thompson-Christie said. In addition, she incorporated an idea called “pay it forward” into the business, giving away single servings of Maine-made gelato, while suggesting that those who could pay for the frozen treat donate to a bucket to support the product’s availability for those unable to pay.

Donations from the bucket paid the first month’s rent for the Coastal Children’s Museum, she said.

“This is the way I think, but not the way businesses function,” she said.

The Farmers Fare building sits on five acres, once part of the Erickson Farm, and included a vegetable garden, root cellar, beehives, chicken coop and greenhouse. Orchards were planned, and Thompson-Christie said she would not charge local residents for water from the aquifer under the property, but planned to box it and sell it in other parts of the country.

She said Farmers Fare was to be a national brand, with the Rockport location as its prototype.

In spite of the challenges, Thompson-Christie said May 27 that she still believes in her vision, and hopes to find someone to make it a reality.

“Every part of that place, to me, is blessed,” she said.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by email at sauciello@villagesoup.com.