Merchants at Lexington Market have seen trouble before. But since the video of a rat running wild in a bakery case there went viral last month, the plunge in business has been staggering.
Sales have fallen an average 50 percent across the market — a startling decline even by the standards of slow summer months, merchants say.
That’s on top of a rash of stalls closing in recent weeks.
Some merchants say they are calling in fewer staff in response to the slump. Some have approached management seeking rent relief.
Despite the problems, few blame the rat — or the customers that are staying away.
Instead, they say, the problems at the city-owned institution reflect years of city neglect and inaction, despite repeated promises of investment.
Larry Brenner has owned Konstant’s, a collection of stalls at the market, since 2008. He’s considering closing at the end of the year.
“The rat incident was, as I see it, just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.
Merchants point to broken elevators, closed bathrooms and air conditioning so unreliable that the heat wave at the start of July forced the market to close.
They say month-to-month leases feed insecurity, as do confusingly high utility bills.
And at least two larcenies have been reported to police since June, in addition to assaults and other incidents, according to Baltimore police.
“It’s not just about the rat. It’s the way they run it,” said longtime worker Marvin Scott, 50, as he fried eggs and turkey bacon for patrons on Friday.
Mayor Catherine Pugh did not respond to requests for comment.
Officials charged by the city with running the market defended their management. They say they have stepped up rodent extermination visits, made improvements to air conditioning, elevators and plumbing, and are committed to further work.
Long-term plans to construct a new market remain in progress, said Robert Thomas, executive director of Lexington Market Inc. and the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., the public-private organizations that oversee the city’s markets. About $17 million has been raised so far.
The Lexington Market board still envisions a new building. Plans are being revised, Thomas said in a statement, with the goal of presenting an update to city officials within the next month.
“We remain diligent and optimistic in dealing with our rapidly changing retail landscape in this part of downtown,” he said. He did not specify the source of funds.
“We know it has been a difficult time for our tenants and many are struggling,” he said. “We have increased our efforts to assist them in remaining afloat by offering major rent abatements and reductions for the upcoming months.”
Less than two years ago, city leaders were painting a bright future for the “World Famous” west side institution, which has been in operation since 1782 and is one of the oldest continuously running markets in the country.
Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who made strengthening the city’s markets a priority, released plans just before she left office in December 2016 that called for the current building to be razed and a new market constructed — a roughly $40 million upgrade that consultants estimated would double sales and help create hundreds of jobs.
The announcement followed years of study. The city spent more than half a million dollars to survey patrons, create a master plan and commission designs for renovation.
Merchant complaints prompted City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young to meet with Thomas earlier this month.
Young spokesman Lester Davis said city leaders remain committed to investing in the market. He called the effort to maintain the facility while planning for its replacement “a tricky balance.”
“It’s a tough situation,” Davis said. “The market is essential to the city of Baltimore. It’s a Baltimore institution, an icon, so obviously everybody is committed to bringing it back. But then there’s just the realities of doing a construction project on that scale.”
Lexington Market attracted about 2.8 million visitors in 2007. But attendance fell to 2.2 million by 2014.
Ashley Randall, 31, visits from her home in Anne Arundel County once or twice a month.
Since the rat video, she said, crowds are noticeably thinner.
But like the merchants, Randall blames the decline on other factors, such as her own concerns about drugs on the streets nearby.
“This is a place where a lot of tourists should be able to come, but they don’t because there’s too much stuff going on outside,” she said as she waited in line for a smoothie. “That’s scary to kids. It’s scary to tourists.”
Randall said she’s never worried about cleanliness.
Thomas said the market has planned “a number of” events to bring new visitors into the market in upcoming months. It also plans to hire a marketing firm in the next 45 days to “intensify” the promotional efforts.
To many merchants, any initiative is long overdue.
Elliot Bodner, 69, took over the Mary Mervis Delicatessen in 2002. He said he has been pestering the market to advertise more for years.
“What’s happened here — it’s beyond the merchants’ control,” he said. “And the city has done nothing at all to help.”
At one point, Bodner said, he was making 1,500 pounds of shrimp salad a week for the deli.
These days, he said, demand is a third of that. He has closed one of his stalls, and cut his staff from 25 to 7.
“They do nothing for us here,” he said. He called the rat video “the final nail in the coffin.”
On Friday, a mix of tourists and longtime patrons strolled the corridors — along with security guards sensitive to the market’s image.
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They said permission was required to speak to patrons in the public market and escorted a Baltimore Sun reporter to management. After an official okay, interviews continued unimpeded.
Brandon Chambers, 43, of Westport, said he shops at the market regularly and wasn’t worried about a rat problem. He said he’s seen conditions at the market improve in recent years, as merchants take better care with their food.
Tourists also appeared undeterred.
Laurie Chevrot, 29, and Henri Briche, 28, of Detroit were passing through en route to Washington. They stopped by at the recommendation of a friend. They had few expectations other than their impressions from The Wire, they joked.
”So far, so good,” Chevrot said as she walked through, trailing her suitcase. “It looks very authentic.”
William Devine, the owner of Faidley’s Seafood, said he has seen the market’s fortunes wax and wane over six decades. He said he has tried to discourage his fellow merchants from sharing their woes with the media. He was concerned it would only make things worse.
“It’ll cure itself,” he said. “The best thing to do is to be quiet, mind your store. People will come back.”