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Who Should Run the Market?

After Years of Complaints About the City’s Running of Eastern Market, Councilmember Drafts Legislation Creating New Management System

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Alexander Acol places fish in the display Friday at Southern Maryland Seafood located in Eastern Market, whose management by the city has sparked complaints from customers, vendors and area residents.

Who should run Eastern Market — the city or its stakeholders?

That’s the question being debated around the popular Capitol Hill marketplace these days. In April, D.C. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells unveiled a proposal for a new governing system. Under the plan, Eastern Market management would shift within the year from the District’s Department of Real Estate Services to a new 11-person board of vendors and Washingtonians with relevant professional experience. 

Wells’ office is drafting legislation to implement the oversight change, and an aide in his office said he will introduce the bill to the D.C. Council in the next month.

Vendors, customers and residents of the area around Eastern Market have complained about the city’s management of the market for years, especially following the April 2007 market fire that cost the city $22 million in restoration expenses. 

“The city has huge things to manage,” said Donna Scheeder, chairwoman of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, a board of vendors and Eastern Market locals. “It doesn’t have time to look at the issues we need addressed. What we’re trying to do is create legislation and an independent authority with skills needed to run the market.”

Since Wells took office four years ago, a group of constituents has pushed him to put the market under local control. In response, Wells created the Eastern Market Task Force last year to study the market management, interview residents and stakeholders, and make recommendations for what new market oversight should look like.

In 1999, then-Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose oversaw the creation and passage of city legislation that placed market jurisdiction under a complicated governing system: The Department of Real Estate Services ran the market with the assistance of Scheeder’s community advisory committee.

It still operates under that legislation — a setup that has allowed the market to “deteriorate,” according to a task force report issued by Wells.

The community advisory committee, which includes representatives of market vendors, the mayor, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and other businesses on the Hill, has made management recommendations to the city, but it wields little authority even though its members work in and around the market weekly.

Still, the various stakeholders who live and work in Eastern Market may disagree about how the market should be run, blocking changes from occurring under the new authority.

Under the 1999 legislation, the Department of Real Estate Services has final jurisdiction on all decisions relating to the market. And that, the task force report said, is problematic. 

The task force report, released in April, criticized the department’s management of the market, saying it deserted the market because of its vast “portfolio of more than 21 million square feet and a history of frequent changes of departmental leadership.”

Before the 2007 fire, the city contracted Eastern Market Ventures to manage the shopping area. But the contractor only had to answer to the city and was under no obligation to heed the community advisory committee’s suggestions. 

The task force report also criticized the city’s hiring of an independent contractor.

“The market limped along with a minimalist management presence and little attention or oversight by the District,” the report stated. “Despite [the community advisory committee’s]  doggedness in alerting the community to festering problems, the Market building continued to be poorly maintained.” 

Bypassing options to change the government-run operation to a for-profit entity or private-public partnership, Wells’ task force recommended the market run as a nonprofit “quasi-public entity” called the Eastern Market Preservation and Development Authority, with a board of 11 directors.

The board, it recommended, should have control of all market operations, including contracts and leases for vendors and merchants, the budget, media promotions and historical preservation.

The task force report also recommended the city take a minimal role with the new authority. Wells’ office is not yet sure what its role will be, funding, advisory or otherwise.  

The report suggests three of the 11 members of the board represent merchants, outside food vendors and the arts and crafts vendors. The mayor would appoint two members, the D.C. Council chairman would pick one member and the Ward 6 councilmember would appoint five members — all who specialize in either business, food, historical preservation, legal issues, market management or the arts.

The report suggests three-year, once-renewable terms and a board-appointed nonvoting market manager to carry out board orders.

The report also recommends the flea market at Eastern Market — which runs as a separate entity — be placed under the new management as well.

The D.C. Council must approve all Eastern Market management changes. According to Wells’ office, the city must twice pass the new legislation on two separate occasions to set the transition in motion.

Wells expects to introduce a draft of the new legislation to the council soon and hopes it will pass the first part of the legislation before the members break for recess in July.

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B, which has Eastern Market in its jurisdiction, promised to hold a community night whereby locals, vendors and other community groups can make suggestions after Wells releases the draft legislation. 

Wells’ office said local groups will be invited to testify and lobby for their changes before the council when the legislation is proposed.

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