Privatizing the city markets

January 20, 1995

Few municipal activities are more likely to flourish free of the clumsy hand of political flunkies than the city's public markets. Several are struggling, and none is prospering as much as it should. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has wisely decided to turn over the operation of five of the six neighborhood markets to a private, non-profit corporation. That body is asked to wean the markets from an annual public subsidy approaching $1 million and allow them to blossom with imaginative marketing and competent management, both of which have been conspicuously lacking for decades.

There remains a strong public interest in the health of the markets. They are situated in the older sections of Baltimore City, where they serve a dual function. In general these neighborhoods are less well served by food markets than the outer edges of the city, not to mention the inner suburbs. For many residents, the variety of food stalls in the markets provides most food essentials within walking distance. Some even offer high-quality products that can be found only in gourmet establishments elsewhere.

The markets are also the focal points of small retail districts -- in the suburban shopping centers they would be called "anchors." Perhaps most important, the markets are also community meeting places for tightly knit neighborhoods, counterparts of the ancient village green. For all these reasons, the city government has a vital interest in their economic health.

Over the years the markets have become shabby and have lagged behind the improvements in physical facilities and merchandising techniques that have characterized the retail business elsewhere. A major reason for the markets' sluggish response to new challenges has been the lack of leadership from market administrators. By and large the market administration has been left to political cronies with little or no background in the food business. Rather than encouraging improvements, in some instances their policies have stifled merchants seeking to upgrade their operations.

Turning the operation of all the markets to private management is no panacea. (The plan excludes Pennsylvania Avenue's Lafayette Market, which has unique problems related to its location.) Merchants in the markets have long complained of their lack of control over their own businesses. Now they will be challenged to promote their wares more aggressively and to upgrade their facilities. The subsidy cushion will gradually be removed, though the city will continue to have a stake in the markets' success. Permitting them to collapse would hasten the blight of several neighborhoods that are crucial to Baltimore's economic well-being.

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