February 3

Former Bowdoin student grows big idea for Brunswick market

Maina Handmaker hatched the plan while a sophomore at Bowdoin College, then earned her stripes before taking the lead on the project.

By Mary Pols mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK — Gary Brooks did not judge when Maina Handmaker first came to see him in 2009 and broached the subject of turning his family’s sagging old freight sheds into a permanent farmers market for downtown Brunswick.

click image to enlarge

Maina Handmaker was a “totally naive, dreamy-eyed Bowdoin student” four years ago when she proposed using the ramshackle barns behind her to house a permanent farmers market in Brunswick.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Maina Handmaker and Gary Brooks walk past the barns where they hope to see a permanent farmers market in Brunswick. A feasibility study estimates that it would cost about $1.7 million to revamp the freight sheds, owned by Brooks, and make other improvements.

As she herself puts it, she was a “totally naive, dreamy-eyed Bowdoin student,” a sophomore from Louisville, Ky., who had looked out the window of a nearby classroom and followed her architecture professor’s instruction to imagine those dilapidated, century-old barns, red on one side, beige on the other, teeming with farmers and their customers.

But Brooks listened to what the petite college kid with the big smile and the even bigger idea was proposing. He did not think she was crazy when she asked for a lease that would cover his taxes and not much else.

“I never thought that,” Brooks said. “Not yet anyway. Everything starts from a thought.”

But it’s a mental leap to make even now, five years later, with the project poised to move past the point of a feasibility study – the findings of which will be presented to the Brunswick Development Corp. on Feb. 19 – and into the actual planning stage.

On a tour on a recent, particularly dreary winter morning, the sheds are dark, cold and listing like exhausted runners coming off a marathon, but without the deliriously triumphant smiles.

It’s easy to see why Maine’s 33 remaining freight sheds were added to Maine Preservation’s Most Endangered list in 2012; these work horses, hearkening back to the era when nearly everything traveled by rail and needed to be stored next to the tracks, are not lofty, grand buildings.

Built with simple post-and-beam methods, they were moved regularly, depending on what Maine Central Railroad and other companies required. They barely get noticed by passers-by and even a fond owner like Brooks treats them like the utilitarian spaces they’ve always been. The smaller and sturdier of the two, where the first part of the project would be implemented, is piled to the rafters with straw for his Brooks’ Feed & Farm Supply store next door.

HOT PROPERTIES

Despite their appearance, the freight sheds, or the land they are on, have been well coveted. Many, many buyers had approached Brooks over the years about the sheds, which sit on prime real estate right near the railroad tracks now used by the Downeaster. He’d rejected them all, and before that his father, Fred, had rebuffed his fair share as well.

The Brooks family had bought the sheds from N.T. Fox lumber company in the 1980s to protect their interests in the area. They weren’t about to sell to anyone. They didn’t want condos or office buildings in place of the freight sheds. “I’d just as soon Boston stayed in Boston,” Brooks said.

It’s true that it had occurred to him, several times over the years, that maybe it was time to tear the dilapidated sheds down. Shoring them up wasn’t cheap. But a home for farmers was the first idea he liked. “I like the nature of the business,” Brooks said. “Farms and farming.”

Winning over the farmers – the 15 members of the Brunswick Farmers Market Association – presented more of a challenge for Handmaker.

“There is always a little wariness in people’s heads when it is a college student’s project, right?” said Nate Drummond of Six River Farm in Bowdoinham and the current president of the association. “You think, this person is likely to be off living in San Francisco or New York by next year and what exactly is going to come of this?”

Moreover, on the face of things, Brunswick is not exactly impoverished in the farmers market department: It has three. On Tuesdays and Fridays in spring, summer and fall, those 15 vendors are down on the mall. On Saturday mornings in the same seasons, Crystal Springs Farm hosts a farmers market so scenic and appealing and rich in vendors (about 40) that Yankee Magazine voted it the best in Maine in 2013. In the winter, the same market moves into Fort Andross.

(Continued on page 2)

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