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Food & Drink

As $45 million Lexington Market enters home stretch, vendors have mix of excitement and agitation

It was never going to be easy.

Rebuilding Lexington Market, one of the oldest public markets in the country and the largest in Baltimore, was sure to hit bumps in the road. The place itself could be a symbol of all that’s good and bad with city: the gritty charm and tradition alongside the rats, drugs and neglect.

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City officials scrapped more expensive plans to raze and rebuild the market, instead selecting developer Seawall to build next door. Its shed-style plan is an homage to an earlier Lexington Market, familiar to many Baltimoreans from black-and-white photos.

The project broke ground in February 2020 with a budget of $40 million. But amid the coronavirus pandemic and rising cost of construction materials, it ran out of money.

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“Everything costs more than it ever has before,” including equipment, labor and lumber, said Katie Marshall, a spokeswoman for Seawall. “At various points, we were really scared about the future of this project.”

In March, city officials announced they were allocating $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to help cover Lexington Market’s expenses, an amount they said would help bring the landmark Faidley Seafood over to the new building. Marshall confirmed that part of the money covers the cost of the build-out for the Faidley’s stall, the largest in the new structure.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott said in a statement announcing the overall allocation: “These funds are going directly to vendors.”

‘I don’t want to walk away from this’

Arra Cho, who co-owns Krause’s Lite Fare and Cho’s Sea Garden with her family, said she’d thought that would help her cover the cost of equipment for stalls at the new market, expected to open this fall. For Cho’s family, the cost is around $160,000.

Before the additional funding was announced, she says Seawall asked her to speak with TV news crews about what the aid would mean for her business. Cho agreed, she said, “under the impression it was supposed to help us. They made us feel like it was for all of the merchants.”

It wasn’t, at least not directly. Marshall said the $5 million in federal funds went to cover increases in the cost of construction materials and fixtures for the overall build-out. The costs would have otherwise been passed on to business owners like Cho.

Still, when Cho found out, she was livid. She said the developers used her, an Asian-American business owner, to promote their image as being good for minority businesses. “I’m not going to get anything from that. They’re just going to use my story.”

Seawall food and beverage lead Peter DiPrinzio responded with a statement: “We have been very clear with vendors throughout the lease signing, design, and eventual construction period about how any initial tenant improvement funds, and then the additional ARPA [American Rescue Plan] funds, are being used.”

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Though she had signed two leases, Cho said last week that she was considering not opening. Interviewed the following day, Cho took a more measured tone: “I am single-handedly supporting my family right now. Of course I don’t want to walk away from this.”

Concerns about costs, and whether business owners will be able to recoup their investments, are shared by other vendors.

“The rent is going to be high. We don’t know if the business is going to be good enough to cover it,” said Minas Houvardas, who is moving his family-run Market Bakery after more than 50 years at Lexington Market to the new market, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in new equipment costs.

Ovenbird Bakery owner Keiller Kyle worries some vendors will take too much debt. “I worry that some folks are not going to have enough runway where your cash flow starts to pay the bills,” he said. In business terms, runway refers to the amount of time a company can operate at a loss before it runs out of money. As is he prepares to open in the new market, he’s decided to buy secondhand equipment to save money.

‘It’ll get there’

Despite the March announcement, construction workers have yet to break ground on the Faidley Seafood stall. And after months of drawn-out negotiations, Faidley’s has yet to sign a lease on a space in the new market.

“It’ll get there,” said co-owner Damye Hahn, whose great-grandfather opened the stall in 1886.

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Hahn says Faidley’s will continue to operate out of the old, east branch of the market until its new home is ready.

The current market has been neglected for years, with faulty air conditioning, infestations and bad plumbing. Hahn said the upgraded facilities will be worth it if vendors can draw in customers.

“We are going to be paying more in rent, but we expect to have the place buzzing,” she said.

Hahn, who is also working to open a branch in Catonsville, gives Seawall credit for how it’s navigated a tumultuous landscape. “This is not a normal year. It hasn’t been normal for two years,” Hahn said. “They’re getting it done.”

‘It’s just not convenient’

Inside, the new market feels as airy and modern as the original building feels dilapidated. An enormous staircase offers customers a place to hang out. Classic “World Famous Lexington Market” signs will be installed. A mural will honor Baltimore’s Black food culture and feature photos from the old building.

But it’s unclear whether customers will meet vendors in the new space. The pandemic pivot to remote work has kept much of the lunch crowd away. Others have long avoided the area because of crime and drug trafficking nearby.

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Thom Shipley, a retired educator who mentors entrepreneurs through the Small Business Administration, says he hopes to see thousands of people coming to the new market when it opens.

“The potential is great, if the environment is not frightening.” But that’s a big “if.” Shipley wonders if city leaders have brushed off concerns about safety in the area. During a meeting a few years ago with city planners, Shipley told them: “You can’t have heroin addicts doing the heroin bend at the front door” and expect shoppers to feel safe.

Asked about crime, market officials and developers said the situation is improving, thanks in part to new development projects in the area and work by the Market Center Coalition, a group created three years ago that includes Baltimore Police Department. Social workers from the University of Maryland have helped find support for people in need.

Parking, too, is an issue, Shipley says. Lexington Market’s Paca Street garage is half a block from the new building.

“Are people going to want to park their car on the third floor of a parking garage?” he said. “It’s just not convenient.”

Shipley also noted that over the years, fresh food gave way to more stalls selling prepared food and wondered: “What is the market going to sell that’s attractive enough to bring a fairly gentrified population?”

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Hahn, too, who wants to see more stalls that offer fresh food and produce. She doesn’t want Lexington Market to become a food hall, as many of the city’s other markets have become in recent years. “People want to come to see a real, operating market. That’s part of the draw,” she said.

Cho said she feels the new market is becoming “a food court. And Lexington Market isn’t meant to be a food court.”

‘Everyone in the city feels a connection’

Baltimore’s six public markets were long more than just a place to buy and sell fresh food. Home to a vibrant mix of flavors and products, the markets helped create a regional cuisine that built Baltimore into a food capital, according to Helen Tangires, a historian of public markets and Baltimore native

None was more famous than Lexington Market, where up to 600 wagons crowded around each Saturday during the 1800s, loaded with produce. “Not every city has such a great asset,” said Tangires. “I think it’s a safety net for the community, a place where you can always count on there to be fresh, affordable food.”

But the question of how to maintain its historic markets into the modern age has been an ongoing issue. Since the mid-1990s, the markets have been managed by the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., a spinoff of a city agency. Its president and CEO is Paul Ruppert, who also leads Lexington Market Inc. The two organizations operate as separate entities, but are managed by same board and staff.

Ruppert said he took the job amid the pandemic with the goal of contributing to Baltimore via the markets, which he calls an unusual asset. “Everyone in the city feels a connection and sense of ownership in the markets … that’s rare.” Many Baltimoreans’ eyes light up when they share memories of fried chicken from Park’s, or nuts and candy from Konstant’s.

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“We’re charged with not changing Lexington Market too much,” Ruppert said.

The new Lexington Market, developers and city leaders say, can be all things to all people: serving its current customer base while enticing higher-income shoppers who might have stayed away in recent years.

“We cannot alienate any existing customers,” says Marshall. But “everyone has recognized that we need to bring in people who haven’t been to the market for years — or who have never been to the market.”

‘Folks still came out’

In the process of designing the new market, developers spent months holding meetings where neighbors could register their concerns and hopes.

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“One of the main things we heard was that the vendor mix [did] not fully represent the diversity of Baltimore City,” Marshall said. Those sessions helped inform the developer’s decision to increase the number of Black-owned businesses inside the market — of the 30 vendors announced so far, 12 are Black-owned.

One of the first new tenants announced was Fleurs D’Ave, a Black-owned florist on North Avenue. Owner Ashley Wylie said she and her husband and business partner, who grew up going to the market as kids, are excited to add a second location and expose their brand to more people. Months ahead of the grand opening, she said: “We’re just patiently waiting.”

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When Shawn Parker and his brother first opened Connie’s Chicken and Waffles inside the old Lexington Market in 2016, they were one of just a handful of Black-owned businesses there, launching at a time when many companies were drifting away from downtown.

“We came at what everyone told us was the worst time for Lexington Market,” he said. Yet, “Folks still came out.”

Within a few years, Connie’s added locations in Broadway Market and in the Charles Plaza Food Court. Because of that experience, Parker says, “I’m not too concerned about people coming now. It’s going to be a lot better than it was before.”

Their stall in the renovated market will offer a carryout window where customers will be able to pick up orders on their way to ballgames in Baltimore.

He thinks that the buzz over the new Lexington Market will draw new customers. Then, it will be up to vendors to “wow them so they come back time and time again.”


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