The oldest city market in Baltimore dates back to the 1750s. In one form or another the city has been involved in the markets ever since. It is a relationship that isn't likely to disappear, but the form it takes is continually evolving.
Take, for example, the idea floated recently by the city Market Administration to hike basic rents and surcharges on merchants in city-owned markets beyond the modest increases already agreed upon in the city's three-year agreement with the local market associations.
The city wants to speed the process by which the markets, which in recent years have been heavily subsidized, begin to cover most of their own operating expenses. In 1985, rents from the markets covered only about 35 percent of what it cost the city to operate them. Today, that figure is 64 percent. But the city wants to see the markets pay even more of their own way.
The problem is that a recession is the worst possible time to raise rents from the merchants' point of view. Most city market merchants operate small, family-based enterprises on narrow profit margins and rely on the city's relatively low, subsidized rents to stay in business. Between 800 and 1,000 people are employed by merchants in city-owned markets. Forcing them out of business by sharply increasing rents serves no one's interest.
The city has excellent reasons for trying to keep as many market businesses afloat as possible: Each city-owned market serves as an anchor of the neighborhood business district in which it is located. If those anchors are allowed to deteriorate, through loss of tenants, the surrounding business district would also be threatened. Eventually, residential neighborhoods adjacent to the local business districts would suffer, too.
That is why city officials should tread lightly with talk of rent hikes. The public markets are part of the distinctive character of Baltimore. Though Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has occasionally spoken of privatizing the markets, that day is a long way off. If the city can't operate them at a profit, would a private owner fare any better?
Yet the city obviously isn't interested in losing money either. It ought to negotiate with the merchants to find a mutually acceptable solution that allows the city to progress toward its goal of scaling back subsidies while ensuring that merchants aren't forced out of business in the process. Times are tough enough for the city's small businesses. City Hall can help by not making things worse.