Five questions with Baltimore Public Markets Corp. executive director Robert Thomas

5Qs with Lexington Market's Robert Thomas: Development … takes time and vision.

For decades Baltimore has wrestled with falling sales at its public markets. The biggest challenge: the "world famous" Lexington Market on the city's west side.

The city has embarked on an effort to overhaul the market, hiring a consultant to hash out what a new building and vendor mix might look like. That report, which called for more windows and less fast food, was released in January. Now the hunt is on for the estimated $26.7 million needed to make the changes

Robert Thomas, executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which oversees the city's six public markets, is leading the charge. (Even Thomas confesses he often brown-bags lunch, despite his insider access to the markets.)

Thomas, a Baltimore native, studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then took jobs in logistics and banking and as the coordinator of architecture and planning for Charles Center and Harbor Management, working on the early redevelopment of the Inner Harbor.

He started at Lexington Market as the assistant general manager in 1997, implementing market policies and administering leases. He became acting executive director of the Public Markets Corp. last summer and officially took over in December.

Thomas said he believes Lexington Market can be a catalyst for improvements in the surrounding neighborhood, helping to reduce vacancies and draw residents and shoppers to the area. His role with the Inner Harbor taught him to take the long view when it comes urban transformation.

"People tend not to take a long-term view of development, especially in an urban context, but history, the history of the Inner Harbor project, shows that it is pretty close to 30 years from the very idea of having an Inner Harbor to getting to the Inner Harbor we know of now," said Thomas. "Development involves a lot of collaboration and it takes time and vision, which is a perspective I bring to this project now."

How has it been in your new position? Has anything surprised you?

Over the 17-plus years that I've been here, and I'm in the 18th year now, there has always been something to tackle and something to do to move something to the next level or improve it or fix it or manage it.

The one thing that I find remarkable, although not surprising, is the amount of retraining that would seem to be necessary. By that I mean that just before the appointment I said to my wife there will probably be a lot of retraining involved, and I was thinking more the shift between one management style and another.

I'm finding it not only involves staff, it involves tenants and there's even to some degree a degree of reorientation with some of our partners. New collaborations require new thinking, so the extent to which I'm trying to get people [to] rethink Lexington Market is something that I actually underestimated.

I was warned ahead of time that culture change would be a significant challenge because for any incoming leader it usually is. And they were not wrong, but it's not a matter of just internal culture change, it is changing the culture that surrounds the perspective of the market, how people look at the market both from within and without. So changing the perspective about the market, the markets, is a significant part of what I spend a lot of mental energy on.

Why do you think sales have slid?

There are significant pieces that have occurred without adequate response from the market. The latest of which is the relocation of the population that was in MetroWest [office building] that has affected both our monthly parking revenue as well as patrons that come into the market itself.

The fact that there is an infusion of people into this area of downtown who also work and tend to get home either at or after the market closes is also something that needs to be addressed because we can't capture that customer base without making adjustments.

People talk about the poor reputation of the market. How do you balance … making these changes and not destroying the good stuff that already exists?

We can do nothing and watch the sales slide more until we get to the point that the only people who really want to come are the people who have no other choice, but even then it is questionable whether there will be sufficient sales if we do nothing to support the merchants and the tenants in this market.

We really do have to broaden our financial base, the strength of it. That really is more about economics than it is about sociology. That's what it comes down to. If the market's going to survive, it needs to strengthen its financial base. That means we have to attract as many customers as are available and leave no money on the table.

When you compare Lexington Market to say Reading Terminal, which is another very diverse market, their average household income demographic is closer to somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 a year and that, plus the fact they're right under the convention center, helps them do well. [A survey of Lexington Market customers for the consultant's report found that 45 percent had yearly household incomes of $25,000 or less.]

You can look at other markets and draw principles from those. The principle that public markets draw from a diverse range of communities and wide range of communities beyond the 1-mile and 5-mile radius is something that we must give attention to in order for this to be a destination again.

Baltimore has this abundance of public markets, but as far back as the early 1990s there has been a constant fight. We want them to be successful and yet the customers just aren't there. Do you ever feel like you're swimming upstream, that you're in a kind of Don Quixote role here?

I've had that exact and precise thing come to mind. But I get the sense that there is a sentiment that the markets can be great. I'm convinced they can be really cool places.

And even though there may have been some history about wanting the markets to be "better" or "new and improved" or whatever qualifies as more attractive for people, I consider myself as having no plan B. The markets just actually have to improve. Continual improvement is an environment in which I work the best, so I'm looking to structure environments where there are the grounds for continual improvement.

You're learning Korean?

I bought a whole CD series for Korean and another one for Spanish … so when I actually have time and am alert and can focus at home, I do that. For me, the issue is just continual learning. I thought it would be kind of an interesting thing to figure that out.

I also attend a church that is deliberately multicultural [Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia]. So it's not just business, it's actually very personal. For me it's a fun thing to do and be able to communicate with people on a different level.

It's going slowly because when I leave here my brain is not in any condition to pick up a new language, but when I grab some moments I learn a little at a time. Then I get some things from the people in the market [where many vendors speak Korean]. I know how to say hello at least and goodbye and no and yes.

Robert Thomas

Title: Executive director, Lexington Market

Hometown: Harlem Park, Baltimore

Residence: Upton, Baltimore

Age: 63

Education: B.S. in art and design from MIT in 1973

Family: Wife, three sons, one grandson

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