5 city markets will go private

January 13, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

In an attempt to breathe new life into Baltimore's languishing neighborhood markets, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke moved yesterday to dismantle a 200-year-old city bureaucracy that he acknowledged had become more costly and inefficient under his stewardship.

By the end of the month, Mr. Schmoke said, he will turn over five of the six historic markets to a private nonprofit corporation to manage. His goal is to phase out the city's subsidy -- which grew to nearly $1 million under the last administrator -- in the next five years.

"I just never forced the decision to operate the markets like a business," he said. "What this will mean in the future is that the policies of the markets are going to be business policies and not infused with the past political considerations."

His decision comes after his administration made several miscalculations, which critics said added red tape, alienated merchants and increased the subsidy.

From his first days in office, the mayor recognized that the nation's oldest continuously run markets were losing their luster. Yet as he deliberated putting the markets into private hands, the mayor undercut his goals, according to dozens of merchants, city elected officials and business leaders.

He wanted to make the markets more efficient, but appointed the brother of a top aide as an interim director who doubled middle management and spent thousands to renovate offices, only to move into new headquarters.

He wanted to stop subsidizing the markets, but twice bowed to political pressures by scrapping proposed rent increases.

The result was that the aging markets struggled to attract customers and were run at a deficit for the past 2 1/2 years. The amount city taxpayers spent for the opportunity to buy fresh produce, meats and exotic treats grew from $625,000 to close to $1 million.

Mayor Schmoke blamed himself yesterday, saying that even though the city needed to boost rents he balked because of complaints from merchants and community leaders. "I have not operated the markets in the businesslike manner we are now authorizing this new corporation to do."

At East Baltimore's 105-year-old Northeast Market, Bill Richardson, a third-generation grocer, said he and other vendors would be willing to pay higher rents if the markets are run "by someone who has a proven track record of retail experience."

"We've been very patient," he said.

"But the city has not been subsidizing us, we've been subsidizing their mismanagement."

That refrain was echoed by stall owners selling everything from whole chickens to goat cheese at the Northeast, Belair, Cross Street, Broadway and Hollins markets.

Most merchants complained about slumping business, although few stalls have gone out of business except at West Baltimore's Lafayette Market.

The mayor is turning over that market, which is half-deserted, to a separate corporation for a complete renovation.

Even the vendors most critical of the outgoing markets administrators have high hopes that the nonprofit corporation will bring better management and more advertising.

"If they do a good job, that's the way to go," said Franco Baccellieri from behind a fish stall at Fells Point's Broadway Market.

Baltimore's first market was built with the proceeds from a lottery and opened in 1763.

Although it went out of business, merchants continue to sell an array of produce, meats, fast foods and novelties at six others that have operated since the 1800s.

The markets, which are in the oldest and generally poorer parts ** of Baltimore, began to decline in the 1970s with changing shopping habits and the suburban migration of the middle class.

In 1979, the city turned over the management of Lexington Market to a nonprofit corporation, and in the following years spent millions to renovate the other markets.

When Mayor Schmoke took office, the markets were no longer bustling, and he began considering private management.

In August 1992, when markets chief Richard Davis retired, the mayor announced he would conduct a nationwide search for a replacement.

He appointed a temporary director -- who would stay the next 2 1/2 years. The man in charge was Harry T. Woods, a Public Works employee and the brother of Lynnette Young, the mayor's chief of staff.

Mr. Woods' tenure was marked by a series of actions that drew criticism from merchants and some political leaders.

For example, he doubled his management staff from two to four people. He also increased the number of market managers from four to six because he felt they were "short-staffed" with the six-day work week. As a result, the amount the city spent on administrative salaries increased from $543,117 in 1992 to $732,651 in the last budget year.

Mr. Woods kept his car from his previous job and leased another van from the city, increasing the number of vehicles used by the markets administration from three to five.

He also spent $26,000 to fix up the shabby markets' offices -- only to abandon them for new offices renovated at a cost of $100,000.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.