Fenton Street Market ends season with plenty of community support, but facing uncertain future

by Aisha Ahzar

The future of the Fenton Street Market, a hub for community-oriented recreation, remains uncertain, despite its renewed efforts to return to Veterans Plaza next season.

Hannah McCann, the market’s founder and president, overturned her decision to permanently shut down the market this season when she saw the outcry in the community. Many residents reached out to their local politicians, she said, and “they seemed to listen.” Sen. Jamie Raskin is one of the politicians voicing his support for the market he calls a “local treasure”.

“Hannah is a great organizer and she had a great vision for bringing all of our local artisans and craftsmen out of their basements and into the public square,” he said.

When the county announced to raise the rent earlier this year from $48 to $1250 per week, McCann said that they simply could not afford it. The market makes a weekly profit of $35, she said, making it impossible for them to meet these terms.

Last month, the county issued a request for proposal (RFP) seeking groups to provide a “family-friendly open air market” at the Veterans Plaza. County officials said the RFP gives all businesses an equal opportunity to vie for space at the public facility.

The document introduced new regulations for future markets that would also raise costs, McCann said. Market operators must provide a portable toilet through market hours, and pay wages to the facility’s security officer and maintenance worker, which cost $35 and $25 an hour respectively, according to the contract. The market should also be willing to vacate the space on short notice and only operate April through October.

After fighting for the market throughout the summer, McCann said that she didn’t have the resources or the energy to put together a detailed proposal for the county. “I felt that I couldn’t continue with such uncertainty,” she said.

Hannah McCann

The Fenton Street Market was the brainchild of Hannah McCann. She says that the market does not make enough to pay the county’s hike in rent. Photos by Julie Wiatt.

Recently, the county issued a statement that they were open to making changes to the contract. “They realized that some changes needed to be made,” McCann said, “We got the sense that maybe they do want to make this work.”

Patrick Lacefield, the county’s executive branch spokesman, said that they had received feedback on the RFP at a pre-conference event and they were working on incorporating it.

The Fenton Street Market and one other group had attended the pre-conference, Lacefield said. Contractors did not have to attend the pre-conference to express interest, he said. “We’re encouraging, obviously, anyone who is interested in being a part of the solicitation to participate,” he said.

The amended RFP will be released with changes tentatively next week, Lacefield said. There will be a new due date for proposals, a minimum of a 30-day timeframe for potential contractors, he added.

One of the changes in the contract, Lacefield said, would focus on establishing a calendar to give more certainty to future market operators vis-a-vis vacating the plaza. “People were concerned that they can be displaced on to the neighboring street on short notice, so we’re trying to fix that,” he said.

The amended RFP would also define some of the responsibilities of market operators, he added, with regards to solicitation, clean up and wages.
McCann said another reason for the turnaround in the market’s future was project manager Megan Moriarty, who offered to “fight for the cause” pro bono. “Her energy, passion and knowledge of Montgomery County is much needed for this fight,” she added.

Moriarty, who is also a community-organizer for Impact Silver Spring, has submitted a list of amendments to the county. The market is waiting for an amended version of the RFP, she said, and they’ll be able to submit a full proposal soon.

“We’re hopeful that this is a long-term solution, but the future of the market isn’t certain,” Moriarty said.

Raskin said that he is hopeful that both sides will be able to work something out. As one of the first Benefit Corporations in America, Fenton Street Market has shown several businesses how to integrate a commitment to community and young people into their business model, he said.

“I met teenagers who got their first paying job working for Fenton Street and they were waking up at 5 in the morning on the weekend to set up the whole market,” Raskin said, “That’s what economic recovery looks like.”