Avenue Market to get a fresh start

Some merchants are skeptical despite management change

Avenue Market to try again with a clean slate

January 24, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

In less than two weeks, the struggling Avenue Market in West Baltimore will be under new management, but skeptical merchants aren't sure that will make a difference.

Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which already manages several of the city's markets, will take over effective Feb. 1, said John Paterakis, chairman of the corporation's board. The market is now managed by the Avenue Market Corp., which receives city funding and was established under then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"I imagine the city will pick up whatever money that's owed, and then we will go in there with a clean slate and try to run it," Paterakis said.

Jackie Cornish, acting president of the Avenue Market Corp.'s board of directors, said yesterday that the market is still more than $100,000 in debt. "The city is making efforts to cover those outstanding bills so that when he [Paterakis] goes in as of Feb. 1 it's a clean slate."

Cornish said the money is owed to Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and other companies. The city has already paid nearly $100,000 to a local security company on behalf of the market, she said.

Paterakis said he thinks the market, in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Ave., can break even soon, despite its problems.

"We don't want it to be profitable," Paterakis said. "We just want to break even. The city would like to see it done within the next two years. We did it with the others."

But merchants such as Clifford Kidwell, who owns the restaurant Shuckers with his wife, Stephanie, aren't so sure.

The market, which many hoped would draw people to Pennsylvania Avenue, once the hub of Baltimore's black community, has struggled for some time. Last fall its lights were turned off for two hours for nonpayment of bills and were turned on only after the city paid $26,000 to BGE. Overall debt exceeded $300,000 at one time, Paterakis said.

Jazz sessions end

Just this month, the popular Friday night jazz sessions at the Avenue Market ended, prompting some merchants to question whether they can continue operating businesses there.

"To be honest with you, I can't stay," Kidwell said. "It's been the only thing that's been keeping me alive here for the last three years. The market hasn't really done anything to drum up business. The jazz was my biggest draw."

Paterakis met recently with Kidwell and other market merchants to discuss his plans for the facility.

He knows that merchants are dissatisfied with the way the market has been managed.

"We had a meeting with the tenants and expressed how we're going to run it," he said.

"Most of those tenants there decided not to pay rent. That's not the way we run the markets. If people that are there now don't pay their rents, then we're going to have an empty stall and we're going to go out there and find some people that want to run a business."

Paterakis acknowledged that some of the tenants stopped paying rent after the experience with the lights being turned off. "Once the lights went out, they didn't know whether they were going to stay in business from day to day," he said. "You can't blame the people."

He understands that tenants have complained of empty promises in the past.

"The only thing we promised is we're going to fix up the market and give them a decent place where people can come and do business," Paterakis said. "The rest is up to them. It all goes back to the same thing we've been saying: We can only help so much. We're going to try to take care of the important things, then look at what we can do to help the merchants."

Baltimore Public Markets Corp. will fix the building's doors, which Paterakis said are difficult to open, and correct problems with outside lighting and the heating and air conditioning, Paterakis said.

"Really, the market was not managed properly, and that's where the biggest problem came in," he said.

Cornish said the Avenue Market Corp. tried to hire people who would properly run the facility.

"In terms of what Mr. Paterakis is saying, I agree," Cornish said. "It has been managed poorly. It was managed poorly by the people that were put there to manage. I don't want to get sued, but there were various managers in the market who were hired by TAMC to manage the market."

Capacity for 30 businesses

The market has capacity for 30 businesses, but there are only 20 to 25 businesses there now, Cornish said.

Paterakis said he wasn't sure whether the jazz sessions will be resumed. It would be up to the merchants and community to pay for them, he said.

"If they want to lease the place from us on a Friday night and charge some type of fee to take care of the expenses, we'll be more than happy to sit down and talk to them about it," he said. "We left that option open to them."

Cornish said TAMC started the jazz sessions, which cost $500 to $1,500 weekly, as a way to increase business for merchants. But because merchants weren't paying rent -- Cornish said merchants stopped paying well before the lights were turned off -- TAMC couldn't afford to continue providing the jazz.

"With the merchants not paying rent and writing rubber checks, the corporation didn't have any money," she said. "So we went to the merchants ... and asked them, since the Friday Night Jazz was for them, did they want to take it over. All it meant was they'd have to come up with the $500 to $1,500 each Friday, and they said no."

An offer

Kidwell said he and other tenants offered to help pay for the Friday Night Jazz.

He also said he doesn't believe that Baltimore Public Markets Corp. will turn the Avenue Market around.

"I don't think so, not the way they're coming in," an upset Kidwell said this week. "They're trying to charge us the same rent that we were previously being overcharged for, for something that never even developed. They're not working with the merchants to try to make it a success."

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