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Branch Avenue farmers market lays seeds for corridor blossoming

An organization focused on revitalizing the Branch Avenue corridor in southern Prince George’s County is hoping local farmers can help grow small businesses in addition to crops.

Branch Avenue in Bloom — a nonprofit venture funded primarily by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and administered by the Maryland Small Business Development Center at the University of Maryland, College Park — launched a farmers market Friday in the parking lot of Iverson Mall in Temple Hills. The materials needed for the volunteer-run market is funded by a $5,000 grant from the Prince George’s County Council.

The program came about as a result of a concept developed in the Branch Avenue Corridor Sector Plan that was approved in 2009, said Clara Fenwick, a planning coordinator for the commission. It is based on the Maryland Main Street Program, which focuses on revitalizing historic Main Street districts that officials say is a “proven” model for renewal projects.

Organizers said the market is part of Branch Avenue in Bloom’s overall effort to rejuvenate the Branch Avenue corridor, from the Naylor Road Metro station through Temple Hills, by stabilizing existing businesses in strip malls and shopping centers along the avenue as well as attract new ones, particularly near the Branch Avenue Metro station. The closest farmers market in southern Prince George’s is the American Market at National Harbor.

The program was launched in June 2010 as a two-year pilot program, although commission officials and the small business development center have expressed interest in continuing the project, said Jennifer Funn, the group’s program coordinator.

Branch Avenue in Bloom has a storefront in the Sam’s Plaza strip mall on Branch Avenue. The storefront — donated by Sam’s Car Wash, which owns and operates on the property — is where experts from the small business development center offers counseling for small business owners, monthly “merchant meetings” and problem-solving sessions in which counselors offer possible solutions to concerns that business owners raise,  Funn said.

The park and planning commission is funding the first two years of the program at about $340,000, which pays for the operation of the storefront and two employees. Branch Avenue in Bloom also works with about 30 volunteers.

A farmers market is “one of the basics to revitalizing a community,” Funn said

“When there’s a farmers market in the community, it stimulates the economy and promotes jobs,” she added. “When people come into a community to go to a farmers market, they show that they spend money outside the farmers market, and it makes them realize the other existing businesses that are there.”

Funn said six vendors, three of whom are farmers, are signed up for the market, but Branch Avenue in Bloom officials say they will be looking to attract as many as five dedicated farmers, along with other vendors, as the market attracts customers.

The market operates from 2 to 6 p.m. Fridays, through Nov. 19. Organizers hope the market will become an annual fixture.

“Our hours . . . allows us to be a resource not only to the immediate community, but also to capture commuters coming through from D.C.,” Funn said. “We’re hoping to be able to catch the commuter on the way home from work on Friday, who may want to get fresh and locally grown produce.”

Among the wares available Friday were vegetables, watermelon and cantaloupe, an on-site barbecue, as well as cooking demonstrations.

County Council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), who attended the market’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, said the market is an important tool for promoting businesses.

“We need as much economic development as we can get,” Toles said. “Hopefully, this farmers market will encourage more local small businesses” to sprout up in this area.

 Bill DeVincent, manager of Iverson Mall, hopes the market will help drive traffic to the mall.

“We’re a part of the community, so we want to participate in all of the community activities that we can,” DeVincent said. “Thousands of cars drive down Branch Avenue every day, so maybe when people see the market, they’ll come over and, eventually, into the mall. It’ll definitely increase foot traffic.”

Fleming Thomas was manning a stand selling vegetables, including corn, squash and cucumbers. He said that he buys his produce directly from Southern Maryland farmers.

“It’s important that people get the chance to get vegetables that are fresh, have less preservatives and are at the peak of their flavor,” Thomas said. “I’ll definitely be telling more farmers to get involved, and hopefully they’ll come out next week.”

David Brodie, owner of an auto-service business a block away from the mall, sampled a cantaloupe. He said the market, along with Branch Avenue in Bloom’s other business support services, are important for the community.

“We need this,” Brodie said. “People will start coming here instead of going all the way downtown to get what they need.”


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