Stick with privately run markets Better business: This approach would shed problems linked with city-run markets.

April 22, 1996

NO REALISTIC person expected all the problems facing Baltimore's public markets to disappear once their operation was turned over to private boards. That some merchants in the markets still have complaints means those boards have unfinished work. It does not mean the privatization effort should be abandoned.

In 1979, management of Lexington Market was turned over to a nonprofit corporation. Last year, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that a newly created Baltimore Public Market Corp. would run the Broadway, Hollins, Belair, Northeast and Cross Street markets. In the fall, a separate nonprofit corporation will run renovated Lafayette Market as the Avenue Market.

It was apparent for years before the city decided to privatize that it shouldn't be running the markets. Mismanagement within the agency in charge had become legendary, with staff and salaries VTC seeming to grow in proportion to annual deficits. The private sector can provide sound business practices that are needed to recover from previous inefficiency and neglect.

If privatization is successful, the city will be able to wean the markets from their $1 million-a-year public subsidy. And most of those facilities will return to being viable grocery shopping alternatives -- instead of primarily fast-food stops -- for the families who live near them.

To be frank, though, some of the markets may not survive. Belair lost many customers with the recent demolition of the Lafayette Courts public housing. And it's common knowledge that city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III would like a supermarket to locate in renovated Oldtown Mall, which houses Belair. The other markets may not be as threatened as Belair, but they all must do better.

Baltimore has experienced tremendous changes not only since the first city market opened in 1763, but in just the last 10 years. Many consumers today think nothing of driving five or 10 miles to shop. Some neighborhood markets have as a result grown dependent on selling prepared meals, inexpensive jewelry and novelty items. And former customers have gotten used to shopping elsewhere for fresh produce, meats and fish. Those markets unable to reverse that trend probably won't make it.

Pub Date: 4/22/96

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