City Market lacks strategic plan for coming year

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INDIANAPOLIS — When the leadership of the City Market went before the City-County Council’s Metropolitan and Economic Development Committee to talk about the historic Market’s budget for next year, Councilor Lakeisha Jackson had a simple question.

“Do you have any highlights to give us tonight?” asked the eastside democrat.

City Market Executive Director Keisha Gray didn’t have an answer.

“We don’t have those particular types of highlights right now,” she said. “With our budget this year we have been trying to maintain ourselves.”

That was disappointing news to Councilor Brian Mowery, a republican from Franklin Township.

“It seemed like they didn’t have a plan,” he said. “The question was also multiple times, ‘What’s the plan?’ and there was the answer they’re not sure yet, they don’t know what’s gonna happen, what they’re gonna do.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of last year set off a downward spiral at the City Market which coincided with the closure of Market Street for construction of a promenade and the disappearance of typical lunchtime crowds.

“I have made it clear that the business lunch crowd that as the merchants once knew it is not coming back,” Gray told the councilors, “and so we are making that pivot looking to attract other customers but again it takes a change in the culture.”

Gray said she has encouraged merchants to establish longer service hours into the late afternoon, sought out specialty events, and is on the verge of bringing two new tenants on board in the next month, all while more than a third of the Market’s 28 vendor spaces on the main floor are vacant and at least three businesses find themselves in arrears on lease payments.

“A lot of the media has predicted that we would have been insolvent by now but we’re still open and running and business as usual,” said Gray, referring to Fox 59 News reports that City Market Board members were told in May that the Market might need a budget bailout in excess of $200,000 by September 1st, a threat that has not been brought back before the full Board this summer but may be addressed at the next Board meeting August 27th.

“I think the City Market can be a lynchpin for the connectivity of Mass Ave to Bankers Life to the Wholesale District besides the Market East,” said Greg Henneke, a member of the Market Board who couldn’t offer councilors a strategic vision for 2022 because the city and its consultant are still conducting an assessment of Market’s structural worthiness and its utilization potential. “I think it will tell a lot about what needs to be done to keep the building together and also what we can do in the future as we go through our strategic planning. I think the Board is ready to dig in on strategic planning on imagining what we can be in the future. We want to move quickly but deliberatively. We want to make sure we do a thorough job of planning.”

Department of Metropolitan Development Director Scarlett Andrews Martin told Fox 59 News that the city is taking a hard look at both the 145-year-old building and its future.

“The assessment of the City Market is really a whole campus look at what the future of the area could be, so we’re looking at the plazas, we’re looking at the alley behind the Market on Wabash and we’re looking at the Market itself to understand what would be beneficial moving forward,” she said. “We’re looking at the HVAC system, the plumbing, the façade and the integrity of the brick and the façade itself, the windows, we’re looking at accessibility.

“The structural assessment will inform a strategic planning process for the Market Board so they will launch a strategic planning process to be informed by this study that then will look into operationally how do we want to see the City Market run in the future.”

That delay, or even the lack of a partial vision, frustrated Councilor Mowery during the budget presentation.

“If you’re gonna come to us, at least have a plan, an idea,” he said, “and it seems to me that they don’t know what they’re gonna do yet until this assessment comes back and its alarming that we are going this far along with it and still entertaining this idea.”

Mowery said the loss of the downtown lunch crowd, the dwindling visitors and employees across the street at the City-County Building, the inaccessibility on Market Street, and the advent of new dining venues like The Garage at Bottleworks present the Market with a challenge to remake itself.

“That’s one of the alarming things,” he said. “If they’re gonna compete against these people, they gotta compete, and it’s not looking positive if they don’t even have a plan.”

One plan to sign existing vendors to five-year leases to assure stability and investment drew mixed reactions from Gray and one of her Board members.

“We have had merchants speak up and say they would like a five-year lease and that is something that we would at least be open to explore,” said Gray.

Lourenzo Giple disagreed.

“Part of the reason we have withheld the extension of those leases is some of those merchants who want the extension of the leases are long-term merchants who have been there. They have not, in the history of the Market, put money into the existing spaces that they already have so there is no reason to extend your lease further if you haven’t even done and taken care of the space that you already have,” he said. “To continue the cycle of businesses coming in and out, we cannot continue five- or ten-year leases to businesses that are there.”

Gray said the Market is a landlord, not an advertising agency for vendors.

“For some of the other merchants who are there and wanting specific requests, they’ve not kept up with the times, so you have people who don’t even know how to use email running a business but they’re complaining that they don’t have customers because they don’t do any advertising,” she said. “The merchants themselves have not kept up with current business practices and current things that will make them more viable.”

Mowery said he wanted to see the Market assist vendors willing to put more money into their stalls.

“If you’re gonna have somebody invest in that space, let them invest. They’re gonna wanna say it’s because they haven’t invested in the past. Well, by those rules, we can say we can’t do a lot of things because we haven’t done them in the past.”

When a member of the public took the podium and predicted that the Market would be closed and torn down, Henneke was quick to respond.

“Not to my knowledge is there some plot to tear the thing down and build whatever because that Market’s not going anywhere. It’s been here forever and it’s gonna be here forever.”

Councilor Maggie Lewis agreed, and Mowery noticed.

“It’s alarming that they would have to say that they’re not gonna shut it down or it’s not a possibility,” he said.

The Market’s proposed budget is nearly $900,000 for 2022 with almost a third subsidized by the city along with $120,000 in annual maintenance.

“Our revenue comes mostly from tenant rent and the city’s direct subsidy,” said Gray. “We get $270,800 annually and, in the future, we’re hoping that the private events and other types of rentals will increase so that we will eventually not have to rely on city subsidy as much as I understand that is the direction that we want to go.”

Mowery said that’s a tall order for a Board and management team that has no strategic plan for councilors to consider while approving next year’s budget.

“Getting them off the government subsidy, I don’t know how feasible that’s going to be moving forward when we don’t know for sure what they’re gonna do and how they’re gonna do it,” he said.

The city expects to receive its assessment of the Market next month at which time the Market Board will begin to review the study and apply it to the strategic plan.

The Council is expected to pass the Market’s 2022 budget by mid-October.

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