Some tourists came for gelato. One couple lunched on raw oysters. And a woman hovered near a display of half-pound jumbo lump crab cakes, pointing to a companion and saying, "Oh, my God."
As the historic Annapolis Market House reopened Monday amid a swarm of shoppers, Steve Britz, in a polo shirt and boat shoes, stood amid the gleaming new eateries, the produce stand and the historic map store, recalling the days when the market, founded in 1858, sold fresh fish and was hosed out every night.
"I've been through so many incarnations of the Market House," Britz, a 69-year-old retiree and lifelong Annapolis resident,said with an exasperated sigh. "This," he said, pausing and surveying the scene. "This seems fine to me."
City officials have tried for years to restore vibrancy to Market House. Last year, it had just a handful of tenants while city officials struggled to develop a consensus on a revival plan. It was closed late in 2010.
But Monday, the Annapolis institution at City Dock got a new — if temporary — start, with vendors selling gelato, popcorn, salads, sandwiches, raw oysters, produce and artwork.
The new tenants have leases that run through Jan. 2, but city officials hope that the businesses breathe new life into the market while a long-term plan for running it is developed.
"The Market House is so visible, and it has so much impact," said Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen. "It's great to have it opened. It's getting the Market House back to its roots of selling good food, and it's affordable. It's not fancy."
For most of the past decade, the city has endured problems and controversies at the market, once likened to Baltimore's municipal markets and nicknamed "the cafeteria of Annapolis," selling meals to downtown workers and tourists, and serving as a gathering place for residents.
After Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the building in 2003, the city spent $1 million on repairs. Then the city evicted all the merchants to make way for an upscale overhaul, but plans for the gourmet food store Dean & Deluca to take over the space didn't pan out.
A few years later, an air-conditioning malfunction forced some vendors out of business. Site Realty, which the city had hired to manage the market, sued for breach of contract because of the air-conditioning problems. In 2009, the city paid the company $2.5 million and regained control of the building.
In the past few years, the city has tried in vain to get the market up and running. Earlier this year, a plan to lease the market to Baltimore-based Lehr Jackson Associates, which helped revitalize Belvedere Square in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington, failed after an outcry from the community and some city council members over lease terms.
Determined to get the project rolling, Cohen pushed for funding to upgrade the market and get tenants in while the city worked on a long-term plan. "Every day that people walked by and it wasn't open, it was a reminder," he said.
The city council approved $500,000 this year for upgrades to the market. That will ultimately include a reconfiguration of the market, which many complain is akin to a mall food court and doesn't take advantage of the building's large windows and view of downtown.
Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch and state Sen. John C. Astle, both Annapolis Democrats, helped push through a $250,000 bond bill in the General Assembly to help offset the cost of those improvements.
The city will close the market again in January to complete the improvements over approximately three months.
Alderman Ross Arnett, a Democrat from Eastport, said both the council and the mayor worked hard to get the market open.
"Sitting there the way it was, it was just a black eye for everyone," said Arnett. "We didn't want to have the Market House languishing while we tried to figure it out."
Ted Levitt, who owns Chick and Ruth's Delly, a 46-year-old institution in downtown Annapolis, opened a small shop at the market — Chick and Ruth's Delly Express & Crab Cake Central — hoping to increase his year-old crab cake business while also selling classics such as corned beef and pastrami.
"There's no promises," said Levitt. "But hopefully, we'll be able to stay. Market House is now going back to the basics. They don't need some gourmet market. Just the basics — crab cakes and overstuffed sandwiches at a good price. Value is what people are looking for — and quality."
Cohen spent much of the opening day hanging out at the market, talking to vendors and patrons and eating. For breakfast, he said, he ate a crab cake slider, some raw oysters, steamed shrimp and a blueberry smoothie.
"Not my average breakfast," the mayor said, as he turned away in search of lunch.