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Produce Market stays put, for now

Photo courtesy of the Mayor's office

Mayor Michael Bloomberg talks with business owner Stephen Katzman in the Hunts Point Produce Market.

Three-year lease keeps businesses in Hunts Point

The bustling caverns of Hunts Point’s food distribution markets, hidden behind tall walls of corrugated aluminum, begin stirring before dawn, and quit around lunchtime. This industrial twilight zone has its own restaurants and shops, tightly guarded entrances and its very own security force.

It’s hard to imagine this fortified compound getting up and moving.

But it just might happen.

The Produce Coop is home to over 50 businesses, and sells fruits and vegetables to restaurants, supermarkets and bodegas around the city. The market exceeds $2 billion in revenue annually, “more than any other Produce Terminal Market in the world,” according to its website.

Representatives of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative signed a temporary lease agreement with the city in June to remain in Hunts Point for at least the next three years. But they continue to listen to suitors from elsewhere.

“We would love to have Hunts Point in New Jersey,” said a representative from Kim Guadagno’s office, the lieutenant governor there.

The major sticking point that has kept Market business owners from agreeing to stay in Hunts Point permanently, they say, is the city’s unwillingness to pay for desperately needed upgrades to the market’s crumbling infrastructure.

“It’s important we try to do everything we can to stay in New York,” said Matthew D’Arrigo, president of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative. “But we face significant challenges in creating a redevelopment plan,” he said.

The city continues to try and broker a deal.

“We are optimistic a long-term solution will be reached,” said Kyle Sklerov, a spokesperson for the NYC Economic Development Corporation, saying an agreement would include “redevelopment plans to create a larger, modernized market.”

“It’s vitally important that they stay,” said Josephine Infante, president of the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation, whose headquarters are located in the Hunts Point Meat Market on Food Center Drive. “They’re a major player, they bring in a lot of other businesses.”

“But the conditions have to be right,” she added. “And right now, they’re not.”

Another sticking point for the markets is frustration over the city’s Business Integrity Commission, the regulatory body created during the Giuliani administration to root out organized crime where it was once prevalent.

Business owners from the market are particularly peeved by the agency’s recent increase in certification fees, from $280 to $4000.

“The city had to recoup the cost of investigations,” said John Curry, acting general counsel for the regulators, explaining the sharp spike, adding, “the fees had not been raised since 1996.”

“We understand and agree with the reasons for BIC (Business Integrity Commission), but think they’ve gone beyond their original intentions, ” said D’Arrigo.

Aside from unhappiness with the fees, business owners have complained that the agency imposes penalties on them that are unreasonable and arbitrary.

“We’re open to talking about” the commission’s tactics, said Andrew Brent, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. “But we’re not going to base regulation on financial concerns.”

Worries over the Business Integrity Commission are not addressed in the present lease.

“It’s better than no lease,” said D’Arrigo. “BIC will be addressed in the larger agreement.”

Josephine Infante, too, is hesitant to attribute much importance to the new lease.

“This deal is just a bridge,” she said.

One of the conditions of the lease calls for the market to negotiate exclusively with New York City until March of next year, with hopes that a long term deal can be hammered out by then.

“We are planning to partner with the Co-op on the redevelopment cost, and are presently working out the details,” Sklerov said.

But the calls from across the Hudson are providing leverage for the market businesses.

“We have a very willing suitor in New Jersey,” said D’Arrigo.

New Jersey’s lieutenant governor’s office did not disclose details of any proposals they have made to the market, but a spokesperson said that one site where the market could be relocated is a former landfill near the Meadowlands called EnCap.

The lease extension may allow enough time for a new facility to be built there, or for the current South Bronx location to receive the extensive upgrades market business owners are insisting on.

“The Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative is an important part of New York City,” said Sklerov. Not only are the markets a driving economic engine, they also provide “access to fresh fruit and vegetables to New Yorkers across the five boroughs.”

Having the markets so close helps keep prices down, said Infante. “We have to watch the price of food,” she said.

“Hopefully we’ll still be here,” after the three-year lease expires, said D’Arrigo. “Right now I’ve got to go sell some strawberries.”

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  1. Pingback: Produce Market stays put, for now | Matthew J. Perlman

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