Robert Thomas, former executive director of Baltimore City Public Markets Corp., hopes the markets can continue to grow and improve to achieve a broader reach and higher visibility and effectiveness. (Courtesy photo)

By Megan Sayles
AFRO Business Writer
Report for America Corps Member

After 24 years of serving Baltimore City’s public markets, Robert Thomas stepped down, July 8, from his executive director position, preferring to call liberation rather than retirement.

He grew up in Harlem Park, and was between jobs when he saw a classified ad for the position of assistant general manager for Lexington Market. That was in 1997.

“It worked out, so I just kind of got started, figured out the lay of the land and kept on going,” said Thomas. “But, to be there 24 years was not the original plan. The original plan was just to get a job.”

His first venture was to update the market’s management protocols and technology, as Lexington Market only possessed one computer at the time. Thomas worked on improving the market’s approach to receiving and vetting prospects for merchants, and he upgraded its phone and accounting systems.

He guaranteed that every person who joined the management team would be provided with a desktop computer, which at that time was uncommon. He also implemented new templates to improve the communication between management and merchants, and he installed security systems to defend the market.

In 2014, he was appointed by the board to become executive director of Baltimore Public Markets Corp., which oversees Lexington, Broadway, Cross Street, Hollins, Northeast and Avenue Market. In this position, Thomas again upgraded the technology used in the markets, and he enhanced human resources practices.

“Another thing that we ended up working on that is still continuing is bringing all six properties into 21st century mode, so we started the process of redeveloping each of the six markets,” said Thomas.

In 2016, Baltimore Public Markets Corp. executed a facelift for Northeast Market, and later, the corporation began a full refurbishment of Broadway and Hollins Market. Its latest project is the reconstruction of Lexington Market, which is the oldest public market in the United States. By early 2022, the market is projected to finish its transformation with a new South Market building and an outdoor plaza for farmers’ markets and public gatherings.

“All the markets will continue to be places where small businesses can start or expand and grow, and Lexington is taking this on in a big way through its new construction,” said Thomas. The updated market intends to draw on local talent, interest and finance to build a local customer base.

When the pandemic hit, Thomas was faced with the challenge of reducing expenses and cutting personnel. He also needed to find ways to keep the businesses at the markets afloat, so he helped them to pivot by implementing online ordering, curbside pick up and delivery.

Aside from the trials brought on by COVID-19, Thomas said his biggest obstacle on the job was finding capital; there were periods of time where the markets were running on fumes, but through teamwork they were able to recover.

Thomas said he was able to stay for so long because each day was new. He was never bored, and every day there was a new challenge to conquer. Since his “liberation,” Thomas has kept himself busy traveling with his wife, and said he plans to use his remaining years wisely.

“I learned long before I started working full-time that I should leave a place better than I found it,” said Thomas. “That’s been my operating motivation ever since, and especially at the markets.”

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