Struggling to survive

Market: One business owner's fight to make ends meet mirrors the rocky history of his location, Avenue Market.

March 02, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

This is the way a business ends, with Larry A. Makowski's rapid-fire tongue calling out the bids as a handful of cautious buyers look on, hoping this bankruptcy auction yields a good deal.

Carlton Brown, 55, whose two businesses at the Avenue Market were being sold last week, stood to the side, talking with his lawyer. Five years of trying to make a go of it on Pennsylvania Avenue had played out, and with it went a $160,000 investment.

"This is the end of an era, and this is the way it ends," he said. Buyers carried equipment out of La Manza Restaurant, and the man who bought the contents of Kitten's Deli sold what he didn't want to other buyers.

Brown's story mirrors the struggles and failures the Avenue Market has experienced since reopening five years ago. It is a story of neglect, unpaid bills and annual deficits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last year, management of the 20,000-square-foot complex of grocer's stalls and fast-food stands was turned over to Baltimore Public Markets Corp. Johnnie Williams, the corporation's executive director, said his company is "working diligently" with the city to improve the market.

Some merchants think it might be a lost cause.

Improvements at the half-empty market will take time and money. Its financial health will depend not only on what happens inside, but also on changes in the surrounding neighborhood.

Hopes are that a business fair scheduled for this month will bring in new merchants. Discussions to put together a long-term plan are just beginning.

There are faint glimmers of hope and change: The market has a new roof, its debts have been cleared. But on any given day, a drunk might be collapsed outside the front door. Empty stalls blunt any sense of enthusiasm generated by merchants open for business. Business owners are reluctant to speak about their experiences.

"So far, I'm really struggling with this business, but I can't give it up," said one longtime merchant. "I'm trying my best. I'm not a rich man."

There was celebration when a revamped market opened in December 1996 with the promise of 170 jobs for neighborhood residents. The original Lafayette Market opened in 1871. After being destroyed in a 12-alarm fire, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1956. Forty years later, a $4 million renovation tried to give the market the feel of an African bazaar. It was painted in vibrant colors with an Afrocentric design.

The beleaguered communities around the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Upton looked forward to the market as a centerpiece for the business district and a much-needed spark for economic development.

Within a year, merchants were threatening a lawsuit, accusing management of misrepresenting the market's potential.

John Dickens, 64, who shut down his Blimpie sandwich shop in January, recalls being drawn by a marketing survey that listed the area's annual income as $28,000 per household and set boundaries that included the relatively affluent Bolton Hill neighborhood. Dickens bought into the promise, cashing in his 401(k) and dipping into his retirement savings.

Only later did he come up against the reality of doing business on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Right now, that particular neighborhood is left with the have-nots and the people on drugs," said Dickens, who retired as vice president of operations for Control Data Tax Filing Services in Baltimore.

Loitering became -- and remains -- common in and around the market, discouraging customers wary of having to run a gantlet just to get a sandwich. Lacking a business mix to attract a diverse crowd of shoppers, the market lurched from crisis to crisis.

By 1998, a $500,000 reserve fund that was supposed to last five years had been depleted. The same year, city officials authorized a $200,000 bailout to pay the market's bills and keep the lights on.

It eventually became one of the 10 open-air drug markets that Mayor Martin O'Malley vowed to shut down.

"I think they opened it up a little too early," said Brown, one of several merchants in the market who stopped paying rent to protest the conditions. "That was a bad start from the beginning. As it went on, nobody fulfilled their obligation. The market was never completed with the amount of vendors that were supposed to be there. We weren't allowed to have certain things in there, like a lottery, liquor stores."

Perhaps, Brown said, a misguided sense of pride got in the market's way, producing great symbolism but little else. While other markets were simply neighborhood markets with no ethnic identification, the Avenue Market was openly Afrocentric. Banners of African countries hang from its ceiling.

"It shouldn't have been an African market," said Brown, who still owns a deli at Lexington Market. "It should have been a market for everybody."

Also, the market carried the extra weight of having to be more than just a destination for shoppers, said George Gilliam, executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative.

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