City's historic markets struggling 1 year after privatization, some vendors complain of lost customers, expenses

April 15, 1996|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

For a year now, five of Baltimore's historic neighborhood markets have been under private management, which is touted as a businesslike way of making them more vital and attractive.

But the transition has been anything but smooth.

Some merchants at Belair Market in Oldtown staged an unsuccessful rent striketo protest plummeting business after the city demolished the nearby Lafayette Courts housing projects.

At Broadway Market in Fells Point, merchants claim operations are more politicized under privatization than when the city managed them.

Merchants at Hollins Market in West Baltimore say privatization has done nothing to boost business as crime and neighborhood decline continue to scare away customers.

Market vendors give the privatization effort mixed reviews.

Cliff Rose, a seafood vendor at Northeast Market, is typical.

"In some ways I'm pleased with the private board -- they did paint in here but in other ways I'm concerned," he said. "Nearly a year has passed, and we still don't know what our rent [increase] is going to be, yet we've got all these new requirements we've got to meet. It's like they're holding our livelihoods over our heads."

Last year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke dismantled the city's markets bureaucracy with hopes of increasing efficiency, revitalizing the markets and saving the city money. Five markets -- Northeast, Cross Street, Broadway, Hollins and Belair -- were assigned to the nonprofit Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which businessman and developer John Paterakis Sr. volunteered to run.

A similar corporation was established to run Lafayette Market in West Baltimore. Lexington Market has been operated by such a corporation since 1979. The markets still offer produce, seafood, poultry, meats and some exotic treats.

The city gave Baltimore Public Markets a $1.1 million subsidy for this fiscal year, support that is to be phased out over five years.

Of 17 market vendors interviewed at the Paterakis-run markets, five were generally pleased with privatization, and two merchants declined to comment. Other merchant reaction ranged from small quibbles to outright displeasure.

Chief among the concerns that were raised are a delay in receiving leases(after several postponements, leases now are supposed to be distributed by Sept. 1), and some proposed changes, particularly a new requirement that each merchant purchase a $1 million liability insurance policy. "We've never had insurance," said Mr. Rose, whose family opened a fish and seafood stand at Northeast in 1943.

Mr. Paterakis bristled at some of the merchants' complaints, noting that his board has saved the city money, started renovating and repairing some of the markets and began an advertising campaign with 20 billboards promoting the markets.

"They didn't tell you, did they, that we replaced or updated every [air-conditioning] unit in each market," said Mr. Paterakis. " That we insist on proper lighting" in each market building.

"We're only doing what we believe is the right thing," he said.

Under city management, rule enforcementwas lax, merchants and private management say. For example, merchants are used to making decisions about working hours, signs, displays, merchandise and insurance -- things merchants say the new management wants to have a say in.

"There are merchants in Belair Market who, under their lease, are supposed to sell produce, but they're selling fast food," said City Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, the council's representative on the private board.

More vendors there will have to sell fresh foods for Belair to remain viable, Mr. Paterakis and Ms. Dixon said.

Some complaints are apparently not directly related to privatization. For example, Mr. Paterakis' board had no say in the demolition of Lafayette Court, which cost Belair vendors their customer base, or in city plans to tear down Belair's northern building and some others for a supermarket, drugstore and bank.

"I'm just holding out for as long as I can," said David Brown, who with his wife, Evelyn, run Eve's Seafood in Belair Market. "If they go up on the rent too much and they open a supermarket, nobody will be left here."

Mr. Paterakis said the Belair Market is troubled. "I am very concerned about Belair Market," he said. " But they [Belair merchants] want me to go in there and help them run the market.I'm not going to do that," he said.

If it appears that Belair Market will not recover financially, Mr. Paterakis said, "we'll have to tell the city and they'll decide what to do with it."

Hollins Market merchants are counting on the relocation of two welfare offices into a building at nearby Mount Clare Junction Shopping Center to bring new customers to the market.

In addressing several complaints voiced by merchants, Mr. Paterakis answered that the new rules make good business sense and that merchants could bring complaints to board meetings.

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