City funds will keep lights on at market

Half of money allotted withheld pending reports

October 07, 1999|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

To prevent the debt-ridden Avenue Market from having its power turned off, the Board of Estimates approved $200,000 in city funds yesterday to help the faltering operation pay its utility bills and other debts.

Half of the money will be held until the market provides city officials with its audited financial reports from fiscal year 1999, which ended June 30. The city will allocate $100,000 immediately to help the market pay for security personnel and a $50,000 utility bill that had accumulated in the last three months.

The Avenue Market, an indoor food and shopping court at Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street in West Baltimore, has been running annual deficits of $125,000 to $150,000 a year. It is the last city-subsidized market, where merchants pay 75 percent of market-rate rental prices.

City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who has argued over the past few months that the market must become self-sufficient, said yesterday that the market apparently needs a financial plan.

"My concern is I just don't think, unless they have some plan, that they will become self-supporting," Pratt said during the meeting. "They're probably still running a deficit."

Other city markets, such as Lexington Market, are managed by private firms and don't require subsidies. The city decided to separate the Avenue Market from the others to maintain a distinct Afro-centric flair to the operation, which is in a historically black cultural district.

The market opened in 1871 as Lafayette Market and was rebuilt in 1956 after a 12-alarm fire. In 1996, the market received a $4 million face lift through city, state and private funding and reopened as the Avenue Market.

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

The one-story building, painted red, green, yellow and black to symbolize African pride, now houses 33 merchants and operates as a private venture with city subsidies.

"There were concerns going way back" about the Avenue Market, said City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III.

Bell had asked to defer action on the market until next week, when the city could review a financial audit of the operation. But because the market's power soon could be turned off, the board moved to bail the operation out of its financial troubles.

The city's housing department has been working to redevelop the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, and the Avenue Market anchors the revitalization plans. The housing department, which oversees the market, pushed yesterday to ensure that the utility bills were paid so the market could continue operating.

"The utility bill is pressing," said Arthur Gray, an executive assistant in the housing department.

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