Baltimore City's neighborhood municipal markets play an important role in many older neighborhoods. They're more than places to shop for food. Many are focal points -- in the suburbs they'd say "anchors" -- for neighborhood retail centers. They are also the places where neighbors bump into each other and get a chance to chat, a modern version of the village green. As such they are worth preserving, and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has taken a welcome step in that direction.
The markets have languished for many years under inept city management. Jobs in the market administration have been handed out to political cronies rather than people with experience in retail food sales. Facilities have not kept up with standards in the industry, though a lot of the charm and economics of the markets has been the reliance on individual stalls specializing in one type of food. But the city's subsidy of the six neighborhood markets (downtown's Lexington Market has its own governing body) has grown substantially. It now approaches $1 million a year, a luxury a financially strapped city government can no longer afford.
Mr. Schmoke has tried to raise rents for the stall operators in order to wipe out the deficit, but he backed down in the face of vigorous protests from the merchants. They have not been entirely selfish; with the threatened rent increase came no promise of badly needed improvements in the facilities or of better management. What the merchants need above all is a more sophisticated promotion and sales effort to keep their customers shopping near home.
The mayor's new approach is to turn over management of five of the six markets -- Lafayette Market's problems need individual attention -- to a private, non-profit corporation. Freed of the stifling hand of municipal management, the merchants would have a greater voice -- and responsibility -- in the operation of their businesses. It will be up to them to demonstrate that they can improve their wares and meet the competition from more modern markets.
The city still has a stake in their success and owes them all the help it can give. The markets are an important part of the social and economic fabric of some city neighborhoods. They can help reverse the deterioration of retail centers around them as well as maintain the tightly knit sense of community that keeps their neighborhoods vital.