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Competing concerns

Impending management change prompts fears,

creates rift inside Eastern Marketís community

(Published March 12, 2001)


Staff Writer

Maria Calomiris, center, helps a customer at the Eastern Market produce stand she has operated for 38 years. Talk of changes at the historic city-owned market has always stirred community fears, she said.

Historic Eastern Market will soon operate under one manager after years with a fragmented management structure that failed to hold anyone truly accountable for the city-owned marketís operation.

However, the recent selection of Eastern Market Joint Venture as the new market manager after a long, formal search process has been the cause of much controversy for some vendors and the Capitol Hill community.

The possibility of changes, the fear of the unknown Ė accentuated by some distrust of past managers Ė seem to lie at the heart of community fears that have prompted great debate and even spirited personal attacks at public meetings over the marketís future.

"Everybody wants whatís best for the market," said Michael Berman, an artist and vendor at Eastern Market who also chairs the Eastern Market Arts and Crafts Association.

"But everybody has different ideas on what that is, what should be done and how we should get there. And the problem is that (the process) has not been inclusive," he said.

For the past 38 years Maria Calomiris has been a vendor operating a fresh produce stall, Thos. Calomiris and Sons., in the marketís South Hall. According to Calomiris, people have been talking for years about changes at Eastern Market and it always raises a bunch of concerns. Fear of changes to the marketís old-fashioned ambiance seems to be a concern not only for her but also neighborhood residents who frequent the market.

Some vendors and customers say they fear that Eastern Market Joint Venture, described by soon-to-be-market-manager Stuart Smith as the "quintessential market manager team," is a suburban strip-mall developer that will make the market so modern that it will eventually lose its historic charm.

"Market is market," Calomiris said. "Itís not supposed to be perfect -- just as long as itís clean."

Ann Schmidt, a 30-year Capitol Hill resident and a devoted patron of the market, expressed a similar view.

"I donít want the market to change. Itís an institution as it is, and any change to it is a sacrilege," she said.

The tall, red, picturesque building on Seventh Street SE, about a block off Pennsylvania Avenue, is currently plagued with a number of problems. Andrew Reece from the cityís Office of Property Management said the problems range from broken windows and doors, cracked pavement, dingy ceiling poles, few amenities, plumbing and electrical problems, and poor bathroom facilities to non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once Joint Venture takes over the managerial duties, those are just some of the problems that will be addressed.

"A lot of what you are hearing is the fear of change," Reece said.

"The fundamental mandate of the (city councilís) legislation is slow and steady changes. Improvement without change? Those two things are incompatible," he said. "You cannot improve something without changing it."

The legislation to which Reece referred is the Eastern Market Real Property Asset Management and Outdoor Vending Act of 1998, which established that one government agency Ė the Office of Property Management Ė would take over the operation of the market until a nonprofit market manager was selected. The legislation also established procedures for financial accountability, something the market did not have previously. An enterprise fund, which enables the market to sustain itself, was also created under the legislation.

Joint Venture, being created as an offshoot of a for-profit company, needs to become a nonprofit entity by April 1 before it can begin its managerial duties, according to Reece.

There are those who disagree with Reeceís observation that resistance to change is the major source of the community controversy.

For Larry Gallo, a non-food vendor representative on the Eastern Market Citizen Advisory Committee (known as EMCAC), the problem is the chosen market manager. He claims that Joint Venture does not have the expertise to run a market. Others claim that Joint Venture only has some areas of the marketís best interests at heart. They preferred a competing bidder to become the new market manager, Eastern Market Management Corp.

"They donít have expertise or interest in the arts and this affects me personally," said Audrey Jones, referring to the newly selected market manager.

Jones, a pottery instructor and pottery maker who works at the marketís pottery studio, feels that if the new manager does not maintain the arts, the pottery studio will eventually close down. According to Jones, if push comes to shove, she can take her pottery business to her basement. But the people who will be truly affected will be the students who take pottery lessons at the market, she said.

The pottery studio, tucked away on the second floor of the market, is an attraction that most people do not know about. Reece said "the current location of the pottery studio places the potters and students at risk because of the limited or restricted exits."

"Future plans may include moving the pottery studio to the basement of the market," he said.

Another major cause of discord at the market has been the status of Joint Ventureís parent company as a profit-making firm.

But according to EMCAC Chairman Ellen Opper-Weiner, the controversy regarding Joint Ventureís nonprofit status is and should be a non-issue because at the time of the bidding, all three organizations that responded were for-profit entities.

Eastern Market Management Corp., headed by vendor Matthew G. Hussmann, and Bernadine Prince of Farmland Trust submitted the losing bids. Eastern Market Joint Venture, the bid winner, is a cooperative venture between Smith of Millennium Realty Group and Bruce Cook of Site Realty Group. EMCAC recommended that the cityís chief of property management, Timothy Dimond, select Joint Venture as the new manager because "Joint Venture would bring a strong, proven managerial expertise" to the operation of Eastern Market.

EMCACís vote in favor of recommending Joint Venture was 4-2, with two abstentions. Some community members have complained that less than a majority of the eight legally voting members of the advisory committee voted in favor of the Joint Venture proposal.

Gallo went so far as to write a letter to Dimond urging the Office of Property Management to "set-aside the misdirected advice of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee."

"Not only is this not a majority vote, it demonstrates a significant division in the committee and is clearly not representative of a majority opinion of the Capitol Hill community," Gallo said.

One source noted that the real controversy is between EMCAC, a fairly new board comprised of representatives from various Capitol Hill organizations, and the older Eastern Market Preservation and Development Corp., a watchdog advocacy group dedicated to the protection of Eastern Market.

Mary Farrell, chairman of the preservation group, feels that Eastern Market Management Corp. was not selected as the marketís new manager because its board membersí talents threatened EMCAC.

"Matt Hussmann had a board of experts," Farrell said. "If they chose Eastern Market Management Corp., where would that leave them?

"The Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee selected a contractor that would protect their own prerogatives and leave them in the driverís seat," she said.

Farrell said Hussmann "has a much better frame of reference" to manage the market.

But Joint Ventureís Smith said "none of the others had the breadth of experience that we do."

"We went through one of the most open and competitive selection processes," Smith said. "We won the competition fair and square based on our merits, and people sometimes lose sight of that."

In the advisory committeeís report, the members credited Joint Venture for "having a significant portfolio of retail sales property, a team that is experienced in retail food management, property maintenance, operation and management." However, some EMCAC members noted "a lack of experience with the management of farmersí markets and arts and crafts vending."

Eastern Market Management Corp., was noted for its "strength in putting forward a Capitol Hill community-based non-profit model for the management of the Market, and its ability to mobilize and draw on community resources in historic preservation, property and contract management, marketing and public relations on its board."

But the report said EMCAC members worried that Eastern Market Management Corp. had a "complex management model, which could result in potential difficulties for decision-making in a structure that seems to rely heavily upon the skills and abilities, represented on the Board. Some also noted potential difficulties in promoting a multiplicity of sources of community input, recalling that Capitol Hill community divisions have played an important role in the Marketís current and past management problems."

The fact that Eastern Market Management Corp. had "very limited direct business operating management experience and no track record for functioning as an organization" was also a concern of the advisory committee.

The third bidder operates the Dupont Circle farmers market, but EMCAC said Princeís proposal was "hampered by her frequently expressing unwillingness to operate the market under the terms of the present law," according to the report.

"None of the bids were perfect. Each had problems, but it was a matter of which problems were fixable," Reece said. He also noted that the final decision as to who would be the new manager was based on "expertise, background and financial resources."

Eastern Market is the oldest continuously operating market in the city. The indoor food market is open every day except Monday, and the weekends bring crowds to wander among the tables and stalls of the neighborhoodís arts and crafts, food and flea market.

Architect Adolph Cluss designed the market in 1893. It was constructed in phases, first with the "Centre Market," which was completed in 1893 at a cost of $80,000. The North Hall and Center Connector were completed in 1908 at a cost of approximately $30,000.

Despite the current controversy, vendor Berman said he believes the community eventually will work through the problems once all market operations are brought into the open and all parties feel they have a fair opportunity to be involved in decision-making.

"We need to move past the old managers," he said.

The solution he sees is unity.

"Once we are united, this will be great," Berman said.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator