The city could turn Cross Street Market over to a new manager next year, with the hope of remaking the down-on-its-heels South Baltimore institution into a vibrant shopping destination.
City officials said they plan to ask developers in the next few weeks for proposals to overhaul the Federal Hill building, boosting the number of vendors and their offerings. They hope to select a developer by next fall at the latest.
"We know that Cross Street Market can be better," said Kaliope Parthemos, chief of staff for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "I'm curious to see what responses we get."
The Rawlings-Blake administration wants to transform the city's six public markets into economic drivers and places where residents can buy healthy food, she said.
Over the past year, the mayor has added new faces to the roughly 10-member board of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., the nonprofit that oversees the public markets and will review the Cross Street market proposals. On Friday, Rawlings-Blake announced three new members and named Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler as chair.
Meanwhile, a report from consultants about how to improve Lexington Market — a process that started last year — is expected in January. The Baltimore Public Markets Corp. also has hired two employees focused on business development and property management, bringing the nonprofit's staff to nine.
Residents and business owners in Federal Hill have been calling on the city for years to upgrade Cross Street, which suffered during the recession. The market also faces competition from new supermarkets and different shopping patterns among younger residents, who cook less or work hours that make it difficult for them to patronize the vendors, many of whom shut by 7 p.m. and are closed on Sundays.
Today, about 23 merchants lease space in the building, which dates to the 1950s and could accommodate more than 30 vendors, according to the Baltimore Public Markets Corp.
"This is probably more empty spots than it has been in the history of my existence here," said Henry Reisinger, owner of Fenwick's Choice Meats and brother of City Councilman Ed Reisinger. Henry Reisinger has worked in the market for 44 years and owned his business for 29.
The city last renovated the market in 2005, adding new entrances, billboards and lighting. But community members said it was hurt by management problems, such as lack of attention to tenant mix.
"It has not been managed effectively by the city for many years," said Bob Merbler, a Federal Hill resident, board member of the neighborhood association and a partner in Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty. "It's very sad the way it's been done, so it's high time that somebody is doing something about it."
Developers, including Arsh Mirmiran of Caves Valley Partners, approached the city about a year ago about turning Cross Street Market over to private management, officials said. Mirmiran redeveloped nearby 1111 Light Street apartments, and Caves Valley announced in June a $250 million plan for mixed-use development on three blocks of land just west of the market.
Mirmiran said he is working on a proposal for Cross Street with Scott Plank's War Horse LLC, which took a stake in Belvedere Square Market last year and also approached the city about the need for changes at Cross Street.
Mirmiran said he did not want to give ideas to the competition by revealing details about his plans, but he wants the building to have windows and be more open to the neighborhood. Plank, brother of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, could not be reached for comment.
"Hopefully, we'll get it," said Mirmiran, adding that his plan would not require closing the market during renovations. "If … someone else comes in and makes a more compelling proposal, as long as someone great ends up getting it, it's a win for the neighborhood."
Ideas for Cross Street Market that have surfaced in neighborhood discussions have included adding one story to the market and making part of Cross Street pedestrian-only, as well as upgrading the market's fresh food options.
"Everybody seems to have a differing opinion as far as what they personally would want to see in there," said Andrea Sommer, executive director of Federal Hill Main Street, a business advocacy group.
Many compare Cross Street to Belvedere Square, she added.
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"That seems to be definitely a feel that people would like to see, something that still retains its character and harks back to the story of the market, but still offers a lot of different items for everybody in the neighborhood," Sommer said.
Cross Street Market generated about $250,000 in net income, primarily from rent, in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to Robert Thomas, the new executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp. The nonprofit was established in the 1990s when the municipal markets were draining money from the city budget.
Officials said the city has not settled on conditions it would impose on developers, such as length of the lease or profit sharing. But the administration is looking for a developer who would keep the institution as a public market and is prepared to commit money for renovations.
Soliciting a private firm to run the market is not necessarily an approach intended for other markets, they said.
"What we have to actually do is make sure that all the markets are configured to respond to the community they serve more effectively. That's going to happen uniquely with each market just because the neighborhoods they're in vary greatly," said Thomas.
His other goal? "We also want public markets to at least be fun."