It was midday in downtown Annapolis, the aromas of falafel, grilled hot dogs and Chincoteague oysters filled the air, and as A.J. Lipchak eyed the customers lined up at the brand-new lunch counters all around him, he seemed almost unable to believe his eyes.
"I'm glad to see this space finally filled and active," he said. "This has been a long time coming."
Lipchak, a Maryland corrections officer, was one of several dozen people who attended the unofficial reopening Friday of the Market House, a collection of shops and eateries in a historic building directly across from City Dock.
Located in the heart of the Historic District, the Market House has been part of Annapolis history since it opened in the 1780s, city spokeswoman Rhonda Wardlaw said.
But since 2003, when Tropical Storm Isabel blew through and flooded the place, it has been open only intermittently, frustrating residents and politicians alike as the city struggled to keep the building in good repair and to retain a stable lineup of vendors.
City leaders and the seven vendors, six of them new to the location, staged a "soft opening" at 11 a.m. Friday, giving the businesses a chance to get up and running and their potential customers a chance to get to know them in advance of the official grand opening next Saturday.
The tenants include the Yellowfin Seafood & Oyster Bar, which debuted a raw bar of polished granite; Carl's Corned Beef & Delicatessen, whose co-owner, Carl Charapp, made his first sales (two hot dogs) before noon; and Firenzes Gelateria, where co-owner Guillermo Barrios was whipping up a batch of sea salt caramel as manager Christopher Harrison talked up the cafe's Brazilian coffee.
Other tenants are the Midship Fresh Bar, the Annapolis Organic Market, the Good Life Smoothie Bar and the Amsterdam Falafelshop, which opened in late June.
"It's a beautiful day, the opening of an interesting weekend. Everyone seems to have a positive energy," said Romina Aramburu, Barrios' wife and the co-owner of Firenzes.
Vendors and the city hope that will last. In recent years, they've faced a seemingly endless series of legal, structural and financial challenges to their efforts to keep the place open.
A year ago, the city laid out nearly $700,000 to install geothermal walls and a new air-conditioning system, according to David Jarrell, the city's director of public works. It also spent about $300,000 expanding the facility's bathrooms and adding a 24-seat window counter overlooking City Dock.
"There used to be this bowling alley effect down the middle of the building. Now the whole space is much more open. The mops and brooms had the best view of the water. Now anyone can see it," said Mayor Josh Cohen, who snapped photos on his cellphone when he wasn't mingling with the crowd.
"Annapolitans love the market," he said. "This whole saga has been truly painful."
The mayor wasn't the only one reminiscing about the Market House of yore.
Claudia Donegan of Annapolis fondly recalled the pizza joint, fried-chicken restaurant and sandwich place that were popular when she was growing up in the late 1960s and described how she and many of her friends got their first jobs working at Market House.
The place was colorful, cluttered and crowded, Donegan said, offering visitors a lively taste of local life, but the decor was somewhat lacking.
"This is gorgeous," she said, looking around at the brightly lit space and shiny counters. "It has such an open feel, and I love the [new] seating. It allows people to see what they really want to see when they come to the waterfront."
Not far away, Debbie Neal of Pasadena was downright emotional as she recalled coming to the Market House with her grandparents and parents as a child. "All those childhood memories," she said. "When it closed, it was just painful, but this is a glorious day. Now I'm looking forward to bringing my own grandchildren here."
Some stores didn't quite make the opening in the morning but were in business later in the day. Owners of the Good Life Smoothie Bar and the Annapolis Organic Market received the last of their required permits an hour before opening.
At the Smoothie Bar, employees from Yellowfin helped their neighbors install sneeze guards at the last minute.
Inside the space that soon will be the organic market, owner Annie Waheed and manager Casey Davis were stocking the shelves with items including specialty teas, natural medicines and toilet paper.
Waheed said the city had been careful to choose the right vendors — business owners with records of success, local ties and an enthusiasm for keeping the spirit of the building alive.
"This space has been closed for too long. This is a joyous day," said Waheed, who predicted that the new Market House would be a long-term success.
Cohen agreed. As several dozen customers sampled the lunchtime wares, he called the soft opening a "new chapter" in city history.
"Today is about more than just opening the doors. It's about establishing a Market House that will allow a new generation to make memories," he said. "We do expect that to happen."
At next weekend's ribbon-cutting ceremony, the mayor said, he'll fulfill his promise to walk a plank into the water, a pledge he made when the city missed a self-imposed deadline to reopen the facility late last year.
He said he's working out the details with Pirate Adventures of the Chesapeake, which has a fully rigged vessel in Eastport.
"Any publicity is good publicity," he said.