Uncertainty at Avenue Market

City likely to approve $200,000 to fortify center, but subsidies may not last

August 24, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Board of Estimates is expected tomorrow to approve spending $200,000 to help stabilize the faltering Avenue Market, but city officials are debating whether to fund the Afrocentric bazaar in West Baltimore in the future.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said she would vote to approve the expenditure, which would cover a $111,000 budget deficit and provide $89,000 for operating expenses. But, Pratt added, she will argue that the market must sustain itself.

"We cannot continue to provide public support," Pratt said, noting city's projected $153 million budget deficit over the next four years. "We just cannot continue giving money to something that has the opportunity to be self-sufficient."

Pratt is at odds with market management and some city officials, who warn that stripping the market's funding would force the indoor food and shopping court at Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street to close. It also would severely hamper Upton-area revitalization, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said.

"The market will come to end" if the city stops funding, said Avenue Market manager Ronald Harvey. "If the city can give businesses 25-year tax breaks and $100 million for stadiums, surely $150,000 a year to the African-American community should not hurt."

The market, which opened in 1871 and was rebuilt in 1956 after a 12-alarm fire, is Baltimore's last remaining city-subsidized market, where merchants pay 75 percent of market-rate rental prices.

In 1996, Lafayette Market received a $4 million face-lift through city, state and private funding and reopened as the Avenue Market. The one-story building, painted in African pride red, green, yellow and black, houses 33 merchants, ranging from butchers who sell pigs' feet to teen-agers hawking $10 watches.

Despite the renovation, the market has struggled.

It had significant deficits in 1997 and 1998, when the market was less than 50 percent occupied, forcing it to deplete a $500,000 publicly financed reserve fund expected to last five years.

Harvey said the current deficit resulted from the market's crime-fighting efforts and high utility costs, which together account for 40 percent of its $545,000 annual budget. Harvey pays $100,000 a year to a security company for unarmed guards and $4,000 a month for off-duty city police officers.

"This is an area of blight, open-air drug markets and trash," Harvey said. "I think it is going to take the removal of that to get the market to a level where it can succeed."

Henson was instrumental in the 1996 renovations and vowed to keep it operating.

Housing Department spokesman Zack Germroth said, "I am not saying where the money would come from or how much would be needed, but I am saying there is just no conceivable scenario where we would turn our backs on the market."

Henson has been working closely with city Planning Department director Charles Graves to devise an ambitious redevelopment proposal for Pennsylvania Avenue. The Avenue Market anchors revitalization plans.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Henson recently established the Pennsylvania Avenue Task Force, headed by 44th District Del. Verna L. Jones, to address redevelopment issues and lure more retail stores to the area.

"We cannot lose Pennsylvania Avenue, it means too much to Baltimore and Maryland," said Jones, a Democrat and member of the Appropriations Committee.

Jones hinted that the state could offer the Avenue Market some financial assistance if the city stops support, but she urged market managers to spend more wisely.

City and state officials are encouraged by new cultural events at the market. Both this and last summer, the market has held Friday night free jazz concerts, which attract up to 1,000 people.

The concerts are good for business, some merchants say. Tony White, owner of a butcher stand inside the market, plans to open a barbecue stand beside his business within two months to cater to the jazz crowds.

But other merchants, who said they've been victimized by crime and low profits for too long, plan to close.

The Sunny Island Kitchen -- the first store to move into the renovated complex -- is scheduled to close in a few weeks, owner Natalie Duncan said. In the past two months, the business has had a wishing-well and snow-cone machine stolen.

"I can't afford it, the game is over," she said.

Pub Date: 8/24/99

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