Freeing the city markets

October 24, 1994

Turning over Baltimore City's venerable, valuable neighborhood markets to private, professional control is an idea whose time has come. The six markets -- excluding downtown's Lexington Market, which has its own management -- are vital contributors to some of the city's older neighborhoods. As such, they are a civic asset. But it has long been clear that they will not flourish -- and might even fail -- under continued public management. And a city government hard-pressed to maintain basic public services finds it difficult to justify a subsidy of some $700,000 a year.

With one possible exception, the markets are part of the fabric of their communities. They don't simply provide food for the table. In tightly knit neighborhoods they are the village green, the communications nexus where residents interact. In areas poorly served by the supermarket chains, the markets offer fresh produce, meat and other necessities at reasonable prices within walking distance.

That is the reason the city has a continuing responsibility for the markets -- but not to manage them. That is a task City Hall has performed ineptly for some time. The markets are large businesses, yet the agency supervising them has been burdened with political cronies. Merchants have long sought more voice in the management of the markets, decrying policies like year-to-year leases which discourage upgrading their stalls. Most insist they can't afford higher rents, but more imaginative management and aggressive promotion should draw in more customers and boost profits.

The lone exception to the generally healthy state of the neighborhood markets is West Baltimore's Lafayette Market. It has problems of its own, mostly the product of its surrounding area's social and economic woes. That has been recognized by giving it a structure of its own, with the additional support of the Enterprise Foundation.

Although it would be a mistake to gussy up the markets too much, they could use some cosmetic improvements and in some cases lighting and climate controls. The city has recognized its continuing responsibility to the surrounding neighborhoods by agreeing to maintain its subsidy for a few more years. With skilled management and more initiative by the merchants, the markets should then be able to flourish on their own.

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