Keep planting ideas to help markets thrive

Farmers markets have become big business for small businesses in the Lowcountry, and that's a good thing.

Markets in Port Royal, Beaufort, Bluffton, Hilton Head Island, Hardeeville and Ridgeland are attracting people and giving regional growers, bakers, craftsmen, fishermen, chefs, even writers a market.

Most of the markets have evolved over time, with changes involving location, dates and hours of operation. It has led to what collectively seems to be a growing economic and cultural force in the Lowcountry.

The Beaufort City Council's attempts to reinvigorate Beaufort's downtown farmers market is commendable: Participation and attendance has been underwhelming in recent years, but the popularity of farmers markets elsewhere suggests that a tweak could attract more visitors to the downtown district.

However, the City Council might have tweaked too much Tuesday when it decided to change both the time and location of the downtown market, from the Freedom Mall near the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, to West Street.

The market opens May 16 and will operate from 2 to 8 p.m. each Wednesday through October. Another farmers market is held in Beaufort on Saturdays (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Tuesdays (1 to 6 p.m.) at Pick Pocket Plantation off Robert Smalls Parkway; and one is held 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays at the Habersham Marketplace.

Extended operating hours downtown are perfectly sensible. The old hours -- 2 to 6 p.m. -- were inconvenient to those working 9-to-5 jobs anywhere but downtown.

The site change, however, inspires less enthusiasm.

Consider the goal: To make the market a higher-profile event that attracts more visitors.

To achieve that, the council has traded a fairly conspicuous spot near the Beaufort Downtown Marina parking lot for a side street with less nearby public parking. In addition, the city will have to close West Street to traffic for several hours, creating an inconvenience to some motorists and businesses that might offset some of the benefit of expanded hours.

Councilman George O'Kelley, the lone dissenter in the vote to approve the changes, was correct to warn of unintended consequences.

To its credit, the council has taken notice of the town of Bluffton's success in using a farmers market to pull people to its downtown. The market in the town of Port Royal, although not located in the main commercial district, also is well-visited. Hilton Head Island's Friday-morning market found a nice home last year at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.

Although Beaufort can learn from those successes, it will be hard-pressed to replicate them exactly. Bluffton's market already had longer hours -- 2 to 7 p.m. on Thursdays -- than Beaufort's and is held on Calhoun Street, which is better configured than West Street for such an event. Port Royal's market is held at a plum time -- 8:30 a.m. to noon on Saturdays -- at the Naval Heritage Park, which also is better situated for a market than West Street.

Of course, Beaufort could try to go head to head with its neighbor on Saturdays -- O'Kelley proposed as much -- but that likely would force some vendors to choose one market or the other and simply dilute the utility and popularity of the both.

Until it is more clear whether it is the time, day or place that is dampening interest in Beaufort's market, it is best to change one factor at a time and take note of the result.

That means keeping the market in the Freedom Mall with expanded hours for now. If that doesn't do the trick, nothing should preclude a mid-season change of venue or a different weekday for next season.