POTLUCK Seafood merchants are stewing about problems at the Maryland Wholesale Food Center in Jessup -- despite the success of the neighboring produce market.

December 10, 1990|By Michael Dresser

It's 2:30 a.m. on a chilly November morning, and Mark Evans has just started his shift at the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market in Jessup. Somehow, while most Marylanders are dead to the world, he's already exuberant.

"It's great," the stocky, smiling young man exults as his hand sweeps over the colorful display at the Tony Vitrano Co.'s fruit shed. "You can be dead tired and I come in here with three, four hours' sleep, but you get those orders rolling and I don't care what it is, it's like a drug. I mean it's more than a drug. It's better than drugs, I'm telling you."

The next morning at the Wholesale Seafood Market down the road, sitting behind the desk with the nameplate that says "Wild Man," Billy Martin is reflecting on how the industry has gone to hell.

"Truthfully, I loved this at one time. It was fun," says the outspoken owner of the Martin Seafood Co. Now, he says, he's so disgusted with his landlord, the state of Maryland, that he's thinking about leaving the market -- or even liquidating the business when his five-year lease runs out.

These are the contradictory voices of the Maryland Wholesale Food Center, the vast, 398-acre state-run complex at U.S. 1 and Route 175 in eastern Howard County.

In the judgment of most outside observers, Maryland's two-decade-old venture into warehouse development has been a smashing success -- a textbook example of a public-private partnership that works. With its strategic location between Baltimore and Washington and ready access to Interstate 95, the Wholesale Food Center has become not only the hub of Maryland's food distribution system, but an important conduit for food shipments in an area running from Richmond, Va., to southern Pennsylvania.

Operating around-the-clock, the wholesale center is a whirlwind of economic activity, with fortunes being made and lost in crabs, bananas and lettuce as trucks and rail cars roll in from California, Florida and virtually anyplace else where crops grow and fish swim.

"It's like the stock market -- only everything's perishable," says Vitrano Co. President Justin Vitrano, whose family-owned business has thrived and expanded since being transplanted from Baltimore to Jessup.

The center, its boosters say, not only rescued two industries languishing in antiquated facilities in traffic-congested Baltimore, it also put better and cheaper food on the plates of Maryland consumers. And, as state officials are quick to point out, it doesn't cost Maryland taxpayers a dime.

It's a record that would seem to deserve accolades, and by and large that's what it receives -- from state and local officials, truckers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, economists and the tenants of the produce market.

But amid the chorus of praise, there are discordant notes.

At the seafood market, dealers say, something stinks -- and it's not the fish. The state hasn't kept its promises, they say. Rents are higher than those for produce vendors, $5.40 a square foot vs. about $3. And the annual surcharge they must pay to cover the market's operating deficits has been soaring. One dealer with three "units" says his annual surcharge is more than $6,000 per unit, far more than the corresponding charge at the produce market.

The anger goes deeper than the normal landlord-tenant tensions, seafood dealers say, because they don't want to be tenants at all. Before the market opened in 1984, they thought they would get to own their units. But the state said no, and the dealers have neither forgotten nor forgiven. Now lingering resentments have bedeviled attempts to cope with the market's problems.

The triumphs -- and the shortcomings -- of the Wholesale Food Center can be traced to its origins in the cramped, congested and unsanitary wholesale markets of pre-renaissance Baltimore.

Before the Wholesale Produce Market opened in Jessup in 1973, Baltimore food retailers bought their fruits and vegetables at three scattered sites in the city, each in its own way inadequate, according to a USDA report.

The largest cluster of wholesale dealers gathered in dilapidated turn-of-the-century quarters around Camden Street and Market Place -- right in the path of the city's planned renewal of the Inner Harbor. Others occupied the Pennsylvania Produce Terminal near Penn Station, which lacked refrigerated space, and the New Marsh Wholesale Produce Market on Pulaski Highway, built on the site of a dump in 1951 and prematurely old within 20 years.

For the fish trade, conditions were only a little less dire. Seafood wholesalers were concentrated in one central location, the Wholesale Fish Market on the eastern fringe of downtown, and the early stages of Baltimore's renewal passed them by. But the aging market was beset by sanitation and traffic problems, and by the early 1980s it, too, lay in the path of progress.

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