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Concern about competition keeps bakers from Newton farmers market

Newton’s first wintertime farmers market features a variety of apples, hydroponic lettuce, fresh fish, and even local wines. But customers craving a cookie fix will not find one here.

Bakers — from the popover producers to the gluten-free brownie makers — have been shut out of the weekly winter market as a result of the city’s concerns that their presence would create unfair competition with brick-and-mortar retailers in nearby Newton Highlands.

“It makes no sense,” said Melrose resident Jay MacNevin, who sells popovers and pies at Newton’s summer market. Less than a week before the winter market opened for the season inside the Hyde Community Center, MacNevin got a call from city officials telling him he did not need to attend. “It was just so sudden.”

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In Newton, where shopping local and buying organic were embraced long before the foodie revolution, city officials faced a difficult decision last month in trying to resolve a conflict between the specialty bakers who are fixtures at farmers markets and the city’s treasured mom-and-pop institutions.

“It’s a very unique situation for us,” said Robert J. DeRubeis, commissioner of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the markets. “We were caught off guard.”

City officials have long wanted to expand the markets’ schedule beyond the summer. When Ward 5 Alderman John Rice, who also runs the Hyde center on Lincoln Street, suggested in late summer that a farmers market could rent space there starting in November, city officials were thrilled.

But DeRubeis said they did not recognize that the Hyde’s location, close to a village center full of merchants, was different from the summer market’s spot in Cold Spring Park, and could be a recipe for problems.

DeRubeis heard from one of the merchants just before the Nov. 13 launch of the indoor market, which is open Tuesdays from 1:30 to 6 p.m.

Newton residents Steve and Eunice Feller, who own two Bread & Chocolate stores in the city, said they have participated in farmers markets in the past, and have discussed sharing a small tent with fruit and vegetable growers and fish and cheese vendors in Newton Highlands during the summer.

But they had envisioned vendors who would not have competed with existing businesses in the neighborhood, Eunice Feller said.

The idea “was a way to help all the businesses,” Steve Feller said.

Newton Highlands has struggled during the past year after the closing of an anchor restaurant, Bakers’ Best, slowed foot traffic to the other retailers. An outdoor market was one of several ideas that local retailers have tossed about as a way to revitalize the village.

Eunice Feller said they did not make any recommendations to Newton officials about the winter market. It was their decision to keep bakers out of the mix of vendors, she said.

“I think the idea is very positive of having an all-year farmers market,” Eunice Feller said. “For us it’s a wait and see. I think we need to have a full season’’ to determine whether the winter version is “a positive for the residents of the Highlands.”

Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, said the city made the right decision in barring bakers from the winter market.

“It’s a complicated issue,” he said. “It’s a genuine conflict if you have people selling a similar product just down the street.”

Brick-and-mortar stores pay taxes in Newton, and can be unhappy when the city sponsors events that compete with their interests, Reibman said.

“It seems like a good idea,” Reibman said of the winter market, “but it needs to fit into the village appropriately.”

Dan Bridges, who sells Velma’s Wicked Delicious Kettle Corn in the winter market, said having bakers taking part could help all the other vendors. Going to a farmers market is like walking through a grocery store, and customers want to see the whole array of products, Bridges said.

“It’s like we’re missing part of the family,” Bridges said.

Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, said variety is key to a successful market.

“The more variety of vendors there is in a farmers market, the more helpful it is,” Cole said. “It’s not just the bakers. But in the wintertime, you want the candlestick makers too.”

Resistance from the local retail community to farmers markets is fairly common, with complaints about parking and competition, he said.

But farmers markets actually help neighborhoods and other businesses, said Cole, who had advised Newton officials against banishing the bakers from the winter market.

“I understand all the pressures that the city of Newton has to try and make everybody happy,” Cole said. Still, he said, “It’s not going to help the city, it’s not going to help the market and it’s not going to help the business.”

Newton officials said they are doing more outreach with the Newton Highlands business community and are discussing whether retailers want dedicated booths at the market to help drive traffic to their stores.

The city also offered a Newton baker, Harriet Finck, who had hoped to launch her gluten-free bakery business at the farmers market, a new space at the Newton Cultural Center. Finck met with Newton officials after she expressed disappointment that she could not participate in the farmers market.

“I am going to make the most of it,” Finck said of her new location.

The other two bakers who were scheduled to participate in the indoor market are from out of town.

The baker debate has also spurred more intense discussions among Newton officials about ways to help small businesses, including creating incubators that help start-ups share resources and ideas, said planning director, Candace Havens.

“We want to support all the businesses,” Havens said.

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