Stiff spring breezes ruffled tablecloths and tents on a recent Sunday afternoon as vendors laid out their wares at the Abita Trailhead, where everything from yard eggs to plants, produce and arts and crafts are on sale every week.
But the Abita Springs Arts and Farmers Market, which began in 2013, is undergoing a transition that Mayor Dan Curtis said he hopes will result in a market with stronger sales and a greater variety of merchandise.
Curtis, who took office in January, said the market's manager resigned just before he took office. "It kind of put us in a pickle. He resigned and we had a market the next week. We kind of winged it," Curtis said.
Since then, he has appointed Nancy Bernard, who lives near the Trailhead, as interim manager. Eventually, the city will hire a new permanent manager, or likely two managers who will alternate duty.
Curtis also has formed a three-member committee to draft guidelines and assist in hiring the new manager. The committee, which will hold its first meeting soon, consists of Brent Belsom, of the Abita Cafe, who also has some experience in produce; Marian Roper, who's on the board of the Abita Springs Trailhead Museum; and Brian Irvin, a vendor at the market.
"That's something to kick it off," Curtis said of the committee. Once that work is done, Curtis plans to allow vendors to vote on who will serve on the permanent board.
In another change, before Curtis took office, the town received none of the money that vendors paid to rent their spot, he said. All of that revenue went to the market manager, he added. At one point, the town capped the number of vendors at 40, but that still meant the manager received $400 a week.
"We're keeping some of the money; it is our facility," he said, noting that the town has costs associated with the market, including maintenance and electricity.
The plan is to pay market managers $25 an hour for a five-hour stint, with the possibility of raising that to six hours if they end up having to work longer.
Among other changes, vendors are now required to fill out applications, which Curtis said will help the market board know the mix of merchandise that's being offered — "not 27 people out there all selling eggs."
The town has also increased rental fees. Vendors who rent by the month now pay $15 a week for a space without electricity and $20 a week with power — an increase of $5. Vendors who rent by the week saw their fee go up by $10, now paying $20 for a spot without electricity and $25 with power.
"We're still cheaper than anybody else," Curtis said.
Bernard, the interim manager, was chatting with vendor Bonnie McIntyre at her booth selling tie-dyed clothing. Bernard said the goal is to have a good mix of products.
In the past, she said, there sometimes were as many as 50 vendors, and that got a little tight, with 40 a more reasonable number.
But the number of booths varies depending on weather and other factors, with some vendors being seasonal. The blustery April afternoon drew fewer vendors, but Bernard pointed out a first-time participant, Karen and Patrick Mikell of Creole Belle Farm, who were selling vegetable seedlings.
The Mikells recently moved to Abita Springs from Tennessee and decided to turn Karen Mikell's love for gardening into a business. On the farm's Facebook page, Patrick Mikell said they took a chance selling the seedlings while waiting for their vegetables to come in.
"According to other vendors, it was a pretty slow day due to the afternoon rain predictions, but we still did enough business to try again next week," he said.
The mayor said that some months, like January and February, are slow. But when the Abita Push-Mow Parade was held on Feb. 24, crowds flocked to the market, and vendors who had increased their supplies by 40 percent still sold out, the mayor said. "That's what you hope."
"People will be impressed with how much the market is going to improve," Curtis said. "No way to make everybody happy. We’ve got a plan, we’re rolling. In the first three months of the market, we’re going to bring in more money than the previous mayor did in any year of the market."