Nearly three months after vendors at South Baltimore's Cross Street Market voted to close an hour early, they have been ordered to return to the previous closing time, 7 p.m., starting March 1.
In a terse memo, the Baltimore Public Markets Corp. -- which operates Cross Street and four other markets -- gave the vendors no choice. The letter said the order to stay open until 7 p.m. would be "strictly enforced," and failure to comply with lease terms "will result in fines being imposed."
Koby Rockwell, who has been running a bakery at the market for the past eight years, said he has hired a lawyer to fight the order.
Rockwell contends that the number of patrons drops sharply after 5 p.m. The market is busiest from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he said.
After voting in December on the earlier closing time, the 24 stall operators -- who sell food, tobacco products and flowers Monday through Saturday -- began closing at 6 p.m. on Jan. 2. The decision divided South Baltimore's business community, which has been trying for years to revitalize the retail districts near the market.
Jules "Sonny" Morstein, a Light Street jeweler and a leader in several business organizations, said a return to previous business hours is not enough.
"I certainly hope that this time they will do more to promote the market," he said.
Shane Bongiovani, whose family has operated fruit and vegetable stalls at the market for four generations, said that "there's a lot of politics involved in these hours."
"It's tough," he added. "We had these [longer] hours before, and it didn't work. Now it's up to the customers and the neighborhood to make it work."
Merchants say Cross Street Market has failed to attract large numbers of the neighborhood's newer residents who, in recent years, have transformed much of Federal Hill and South Baltimore from a blue-collar enclave into an expensive and trendy residential area.
"Shoppers who used to shop during the day have passed away. We are dealing with a new generation," said Tommy Chagouris, an owner of the market's biggest store, Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood. Chagouris' business has a self-contained raw bar and tavern operation that stays open later.
Cross Street Market is slated for extensive external remodeling later this year. Retailers say the market's business took a dip two years ago when a Whole Foods Market, an upscale seven-day-a-week grocery store with late hours, opened less than two miles away.