City to give up management of public markets

October 21, 1994|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's public markets -- colorful, fragrant attractions for shoppers and tourists for more than a century -- will be turned over to an independent, nonprofit corporation to manage.

In a move long-sought by merchants who want to revitalize the aging neighborhood markets, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced yesterday that he's ending the city's management of the stalls from which merchants sell produce, meats, fish, fast food and novelties.

Five of the markets will be turned over as early as January to a professional manager hired by a nonprofit board made up of business leaders and community activists.

The sixth market, Lafayette Market, will be run by its own board of merchants, neighborhood organizations and the Enterprise Foundation. The foundation is working with the city to renovate the worn, yet vibrant market off Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore.

"Hopefully, this will bring about even more entrepreneurial spirit in the markets, and they will operate even more efficiently," Mr. Schmoke said at his weekly news briefing.

Baltimore's municipal market system is the oldest and most extensive in the nation. The first city market opened in 1763, and although it went out of business, six others have continued to operate since the 1800s. All are in the older and generally poorer sections of the city.

The Schmoke administration has been considering privatizing Belair, Northeast, Cross Street, Hollins, Broadway and Lafayette markets for the past two years in an attempt to reduce the city's annual subsidy of about $700,000.

Mr. Schmoke said yesterday that his goal is to gradually eliminate the subsidy by restructuring and increasing the rents for stall space. The city plans to offer a flat subsidy for the next three to five years and then either phase it out or provide only a limited management fee.

"I think the markets really add value to our community," he said. "I just think the markets should be run privately. This is not an essential function of the city and should not need public employees. We're going to run it like a business, not like a city agency."

His action drew widespread support from merchants, who have been lobbying for years to turn over the administration of the markets to a professional manager. Many of the fast-food stall owners, grocers and other shopkeepers have complained that the city lacks the retailing expertise to advertise and operate the markets effectively.

"I'm very happy at an opportunity to work with a private company that has retail experience," said Carole Chinn, owner of a cheese shop at Cross Street Market in Federal Hill.

William Richardson, president of the Northeast Market's merchants association, said privatization will help the markets by controlling costs and improving management.

Four years ago, merchants at Northeast Market in East Baltimore tried to purchase the 105-year-old brick building for $1 million. But the city rejected their offer.

Merchants at Northeast and other markets stepped up their complaints in recent years that city bureaucrats, not the stall owners, were benefiting from the subsidies. The city spends close to $2 million a year on the markets, but rents offset about two-thirds of the cost.

"They're not subsidizing our business, they're subsidizing their mismanagement," argued Mr. Richardson, one of the merchants who have complained about administrative costs, including renovations to the central offices, poor maintenance and other problems.

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