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The Market’s Guiding Hand

Advisory Group Leader Brings a Sense of Calm

Around 10 p.m. on the last Wednesday of the month, you can usually find Donna Scheeder sipping on a drink at Tunnicliff’s Tavern on Seventh Street Southeast. Other members of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee surround her as they toast the end of the group’s monthly meeting.

“You don’t have something like [Eastern Market] by accident,” says Scheeder, who represents D.C. Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) on the committee and serves as the group’s chairwoman. “It takes a lot of community care and involvement to make sure others understand how much you value what you have.”

Scheeder doesn’t have it easy presiding over the committee, which is composed of representatives of the market merchants, the D.C. Council and the community.

The monthly meetings, held at the Old Naval Hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, often go on for several hours and at times break down into bickering over parking, drainage and the like. All the while, Scheeder tries to keep participants on track and encourages them to be respectful of one another.

“She’s slight of frame, but when you watch her in action running one of those meetings, you find there’s nothing slight or frail about her,” says Linda O’Brian, a senior policy adviser to Wells. “She’s tough. She keeps the meetings under control and she’s fair.”

“She serves as school [teacher] and keeps the unruly school children in order and does a great job of it,” adds committee member Monte Edwards.

For her part, Scheeder says she tries to avoid inserting herself into the disagreements.

“The best way to fix [arguments] is to let them work it out,” she says over lunch at Bread and Chocolate, a cafe near the site of the meetings. “You can’t impose compromises on people and expect them to be implemented and followed. You have to let people work through some of their own issues at the market and come up with a solution that everyone can live with. They manage to do that.”

Trial by Fire

Last April, the committee was faced with one of its greatest challenges after the market fell victim to a fire that gutted the South Hall.

“Since the fire, she’s put in countless hours to make sure Eastern Market would come back stronger than ever, and I’m sure it will,” Wells says. “I can’t think of anyone I would rather have in that position.”

Scheeder praises Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty for stepping up to the plate shortly after the disaster. A temporary structure known as “East Hall” quickly was built across the street from the market, keeping vendors in business while the South Hall is rebuilt.

“There are a lot of good people on EMCAC who pitch in,” Scheeder says. “It’s a group effort. It’s a team.”

Matt Hussman often represents the D.C. Office of Property Management at the monthly meetings, a job that can be difficult when problems with the market’s structure arise. Scheeder often calms the frustrated merchants while Hussman delivers a progress report.

“I think Donna’s terrific,” Hussman says. “We speak on the phone periodically. We’ll go out and have a cup of coffee periodically just to keep each other abreast to what’s going on [with the market].”

A Familiar Face

Scheeder has been a quiet force on the Hill for some 30 years. She first moved into her home on North Carolina Avenue Southeast in 1975, six years after taking a job at the Library of Congress. She has since served, at one time or another, on her advisory neighborhood commission and as vice chairwoman of the D.C. Democratic Party.

One of the things that Scheeder says she loves about life on Capitol Hill is the sense of community, particularly at Eastern Market.

“People come [to the market] because they have a relationship with their merchants and the merchants know who you are,” she says. “They’ll ask about your family. You can bring a recipe in to the meat guy and say ‘I need this.’”

Scheeder first became involved in the market’s advisory committee in 2004 when then-D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose (D) asked her to represent Ward 6. Upon her arrival, Scheeder noticed many management challenges.

“Once I looked at the business plan, it became obvious to me that [market manager] Eastern Market Ventures has promised to do a lot of things [that were never done],” Scheeder says.

Disputes between merchants and EMV have been an ongoing theme of Scheeder’s tenure.

The market has three branches: the vendors, the flea market and the farmers market. Many merchants have complained that EMV doesn’t have representatives present on site enough and that the company is not involved in the market’s day-to-day operations. Moreover, the North Hall is managed by Market 5 Gallery, another source of tension among merchants. This is an issue that Scheeder hopes to have resolved in the next year.

“I’d like to see the vision and the goal of the unified management of the market. We’ve completed the [request for proposal] process,” Scheeder says, referencing a recent document released by the D.C. government that seeks candidates to take over market management. Scheeder hopes that the three branches of the market will unite under the new manager.

“For the market to work, there needs to be an economic model that allows advertising for all three things at the same time with contributions from all three areas. You can’t let the stuff get out of balance; it’s like three horses need to be pulling the wagon.”

Experience That Comes in Handy

When Scheeder is not presiding over EMCAC meetings, she works as the director of services at the Law Library of Congress, a job that involves keeping track of the largest law library in the world.

“We’re up to like 3.6 million items,” she says. “We collect the laws of every country in the world, so it’s all the issues that come with all these different languages from all these different jurisdictions.”

Other nations sometimes come to the Law Library to help trace the roots of their legal system. For instance, when the Taliban first was defeated and Afghanistan was trying to establish a democratic government, officials there turned to the Library for help.

“The Taliban had destroyed a lot of the documentation and libraries,” Scheeder says. “So we were able to help [Afghans] reconstruct their heritage because we had copies of things that we digitized.”

Scheeder has been working at the Library for nearly 40 years and has seen it evolve with the introduction of computers and eventually the Internet.

“I’ve been in a place that can afford to adapt new technology to our work,” she says. “We had new tools first and that’s made my job exciting.”

Scheeder’s library skills also are of use in her work on the market’s advisory committee, since the organization often is responsible for teaching new councilmembers and other representatives of the D.C. government about the market and its history.

“We have a small library filled with documents, reports and stuff. … Some of the frustration comes from the fact that I really do think the District government as a whole, not just any one administration, needs to do more about continuity creating and training of people about issues that transcend administrations,” she says. “I don’t see a lot of concern about briefing new people coming in, keeping important documents, the transfer of knowledge that needs to happen from one administration to another.”

For now, Scheeder will continue to preside over the committee as it moves forward with the search for new management. While South Hall remains closed, Scheeder is in no rush to reopen it. She values a job well done over a job done quickly, she says.

“It’s a very delicate and complex task to restore a historic building,” she says. “Because we have everybody in business, I’m willing to make sure that we take the time to do it right.”

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