Don't Sell the City's Markets

September 16, 1990

Baltimore's six municipally-operated markets may be a throwback in time. But they also are a unique asset. No other American city boasts such a comprehensive network of neighborhood markets where people can buy fresh produce, meats or fish from a merchant who greets them by name. Robert L. Kinsey's family has been selling veal and lamb from the same stall at Hollins Market since 1889.

Now comes a proposal from a group of merchants at Northeast Market to buy that 105-year-old brick building, recently renovated at the cost of $2.75 million, from the city for $1 million. That way, the merchants argue, they will be assured that the city will not eventually sell the building out from under them.

We hope that the Schmoke administration has the foresight and fortitude to declare in no uncertain terms that neither Northeast Market nor Belair, Broadway, Cross Street, Hollins or Lafayette is for sale. Considerable amounts of public funds -- and management time -- have been spent to upgrade those markets in recent years. With the exception of Lafayette Market, each is now doing quite well, a fact which is reflected in the steadily declining subsidies from city coffers. Any tinkering with the municipal market system at this point could deal a fatal blow at efforts to revitalize nearby inner-city neighborhoods.

It is good that merchants at Northeast Market are concerned about the future of their market. That should give them more energy to advertise their market's considerable attractions -- from excellent meat and fruit stalls to a thriving lunch-time food court. That also should give them a stronger voice in insisting that the city's market system be kept viable and in its present good physical and administrative order.

As to the merchants' idea to buy the market, it is without compelling merit. Worldwide experience shows that operation of successful markets is one of the toughest jobs imaginable because independent vendors seldom can agree among themselves on common goals. Instead, partnerships often become mired in law suits and charges of favoritism, leading either to mob control or the collapse of markets. Baltimore's markets and their neighborhoods cannot be exposed to such a risk.

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