When the Florida Department of Transportation decided to widen U.S. Highway 17-92 in the town of Lake Alfred, dividing the highway and limiting the options for driving from one side to the other, an unwitting side effect was to hurt area retailers. “Our new road construction, which has one way in and one way out, has put a damper on every business,” says Al Kitzmiller, co-owner of Sherman’s Antiques. In the aftermath, he and his business partner, Jerry Sherman, decided to start a flea market. “We had to find something to bring people back into our area, and this is what we came up with,” he explains.
So far the LA Vendors’ Flea Market has been held twice, and it has been a big success, not only for the vendors at the flea market, but for nearby shopkeepers as well, according to Kitzmiller. The monthly swap meet is being held on the last Saturday of every month, and the third session will be this coming this Saturday. Currently the market is held on private land next to Sherman’s Antiques, and there it can fit 200 vendors. The August session attracted 40. “We had a farmer’s market, live music, a church selling food, and a handicapped nursery doing plants. That was pretty darn good,” he says.
Now Kitzmiller and Sherman are starting the nonprofit Lake Alfred Merchants Association, with the expectation that the new group will take over owning and running the market. They also hope to close off a nearby street to hold the flea market.
But it is not just the Department of Transportation that is putting up roadblocks to stop business growth in Lake Alfred. “Between city requirements and Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s sign restrictions in and out of its right-of-way, businesses have suffered,” writes Mary Hurst of NewsChief.com. When the flea market went to the town to get permits for more sessions, and to request the closure of a street for future markets, the Lake Alfred City Commission decided to take over the flea market and make it a joint venture of the local government and the Lake Alfred Chamber of Commerce. According to the news report at NewsChief.com, “City Manager Larry Harbuck said he had been working with the Chamber to take over the event so it would be co-sponsored by the city and the Chamber.”
Naturally, Kitzmiller is quite resistant to that idea. “It’s all about the merchants. It has nothing to do with the city. We put our own money in, and all we want is permission, nothing else. And now, all of a sudden, at the last commission meeting, they’re taking it over,” he says, adding passionately, “No they’re not.”
He listed the hurdles the town has thrown up to try to derail the market. “When we asked the city for permission, they wanted to take it over right then and there. Then they told us we had to have liability insurance, and we already have it,” he says. “They told us that a private individual could not charge rental fees — but we’re not!”
As Kitzmiller says, he is not charging vendors any money at all for spaces, nor is he charging shoppers for admission. “We’ve put a lot of money into this,” he says, “but we have not made a penny back.” He is angry about the local government obstructions. “They can’t do things on their own,” he says. “They want to grab somebody else’s idea, I guess.”
Judy Gay, the president of the Lake Alfred Chamber of Commerce, says that her organization has held informal talks with the city, but she has not presented the flea market proposal to the Chamber’s Board. She did not think that a public roadway would be used for the market. “The last I heard, the city was not going to close a street,” she tells FleaMarketZone.com. “There are a couple of other places that have been discussed.”
Gay suggested that the City Commission wants to partner with the Chamber of Commerce only because the new Merchant Association is not actually a formally organized nonprofit at this point. “My understanding is that the new Merchants Association is not official yet. The city has to have an organization to partner with to sponsor a special event,” she says. “They have started recruiting, but it has to be a 501 organization.”
In general, Gay is very supportive of the idea of a flea market. “It has been very successful in surrounding communities, so I think it’s a good idea,” she says. “The people I’ve talked to are in favor of it.” She says that the stumbling block is liability insurance, and that has to be figured out.
The City Commission is meeting again on the issue on Oct. 3. Lake Alfred mayor Nancy Z. Daley did not reply to a request for comment on this story by presstime.
Kitzmiller and Sherman are holding an organizational meeting for the new Merchants Association Sept. 27. For more information about that or about the LA Vendors’ Flea Market, call Kitzmiller at (863) 224-0395 or Sherman at (863) 221-4035.
Photo credits, with thanks: LA Vendors’ Flea Market.