Indianapolis City Market Board delays request for $200,000 bailout

IN Focus: Indiana Politics

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis City Market Board on Thursday essentially tabled a discussion about requesting a $200,000-plus bailout from the City-County Council to pay its bills through the end of the year.

The absence of the board’s finance committee chairman delayed discussion of the funding crisis beyond an advisement by City Market Executive Director Keisha Gray that 2021 market finances are tracking with last year’s figures without listing specific dollar amounts.

In May, the board’s finance committee revealed that it expected cash flow to pay on-going expenses would dry up by September and that the potential red ink could reach a quarter-million dollars.

Gray said a truer picture of the market’s financial crisis should become clearer in July.

“We’re not at a critical moment at this point in time where we need the funds yesterday,” Gray said.

While the crowds are slowly trickling back to the City Market in downtown Indianapolis, the lines are nearly non-existent compared to the standing room only queues that usually greeted lunchtime diners before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of early 2020.

“It’s bad. It’s really, really bad,” said Bebo Saleh of CATH Inc. when asked how much his business has dropped off, “something like 25-30% because all of our customers are the government employees.”

Saleh was talking about the customers who formerly reported to work every day at the City-County Building just across Market Street. The CCB is back open, but Market Street has been shut down since late last year for reconstruction and won’t open back up until November.

Alabama and Delaware streets, which border the City Market on the east and west, are obstructed by construction, too.

“Now we see about 10% of our customers here,” said Saleh. “I think we have to return to normal streets again. No construction, all the employees come back fulltime, that would make business best.”

At least nine merchant stalls are empty and may never be filled again, as Gray said a handful of vendors have taken the market up on its offer to prematurely end their leases or opt for a partial rent deferment plan until next year.

“We do have others who have opted into the 50% of their monthly expenses and 10% of their gross sales,” to juggle lease payments, said Gray.

At Just Cookies, where owner David Stockton said sales are off by at least 50%, the rental relief comes at an opportune time.

“Our lease runs out in September, and we’re certainly gonna do the rent deferral until that point, and when we negotiate a new lease, we will see what happens,” he said. “They only negotiate a two-year lease so that’s pretty much what we’re locked into.”

Gray said the City Market Board may consider signing five-year leases for merchants looking to invest in their operations as long as they know the market will be around for the long run.

“I’ve had conversations with board members one-on-one just about where we go and what to do from here and knowing that something has to change and handling something differently is a great place to start,” said Gray, referring to the formation of the board’s strategic vision committee that has yet to begin work. “We’ve got space where we can play up our event rental capacity and do more with our historic catacombs because they are very interesting to people all over the world.”

Stockton has sold cookies at the market since 1988 and has suggestions for bringing in customers.

“They need some sort of exterior lighting so people know. If they’re going to do evening events, they need to know that we’re here. They need to spend some money on the buildings and grounds to make it look more appealing,” said Stockton, who has already seen vendors and customers migrate to Bottleworks, which opened on the north end of Massachusetts Avenue last winter and keeps later hours than the City Market.

“For one thing, there would be uniform hours. It’s right now everyone does as they please. In the late afternoons, people come up and nothing’s open, and they’re a little disgruntled, and I feel bad, and I have to refer them over to Mass Ave. if they want to eat supper,” he said. “After lunch and, say, between 4 and 5 o’clock, we used to do a very steady afternoon trade, and that’s just dried up.”

Gray said the market is about to post longer hours open later into the afternoon.

“We’ve got to stabilize our closing hours, and we will be moving to a 4 p.m. closure next month, and hopefully by September, a 6 p.m. closure as provided for in the agreements that most of the merchants here have signed, and I think that will start opening up the possibilities of what we could do as far as to cater to the residents who are around us.”

Gray also needs to stabilize City Market finances, including a history of deficits and the genesis of a $400,000 loan the city made to the market some years ago that she said no one has been able to pin down or even find the paperwork for.

“There was a loan, and I don’t know what the total amount was, but there was a renovation some years ago, and there was money borrowed,” said Gray who came on board as executive director in late 2020. “So there was a renovation some years ago. I don’t know personally if that money was the total amount borrowed or if it was more and we paid it down to that.”

The Metropolitan Development Commission recently entered into a $220,000 contract with a consultant to assess the conditions of both the market and the former City Hall one block north on Alabama Street to determine their structural worthiness which would give city leaders and the City Market Board a starting point to determine what’s possible at both sites.

“It’s an assessment,” said Gray. “They’re going to come in and take a look at everything, tell us the condition, the life expectancy of certain systems and when they need to be replaced and help us be able to start crafting that vision of what we could be.”

Gray said when the board begins developing its strategic vision for the market, even the hiring of a professional management company will be on the table, which would please cookie maker Stockton.

“To promote it, have concerts in here, have entertainment things because there are so many people who move close to this place within walking distance. I think that there’s a definite opportunity here for evening events, but they gotta do something fun and draw people in.”

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