After trouble, Annapolis' public market on the verge of revitalization

Perched on the waterfront in the heart of a historic downtown, the centuries-old public market in Maryland's capital city has perhaps the most important ingredient for success: location.

But Annapolis Market House, a developer's and a retailer's dream because of its visibility, has hit a nadir. Once a center of civic engagement where crowds gathered for a fill of town gossip, the wood-frame building with a view of a world-renowned harbor now sits nearly empty.

Just three tenants remain in the 220-year-old building, which not too long ago buzzed with local residents buying fresh produce and flowers and has been described as "the cafeteria of Annapolis." A series of management failures and a lack of consensus among city residents and government officials have thwarted revitalization efforts.

The condition is a bit of puzzle. There is no shortage of thriving historic markets in cities along the East and West coasts, from Eastern Market in D.C. to Faneuil Hall in Boston and Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Much of Maryland's quirky charm derives from the bustling public shopping spaces such as the Lexington and Cross Street markets in Baltimore.

Those venues and others evoke an earlier time, before supermarket and discount chains dominated retail life. They have survived the advent of big-box retailers by selling groceries with an ambience. In recent years, successful markets have been buoyed by the growing popularity of farmers markets coupled with a growing "buy local" movement and an increasingly health-conscious public. But Annapolis, and to a lesser extent, Baltimore, have had a tougher time sustaining those businesses. Even well-established markets like those in Baltimore dating to the 18th and 19th centuries can fall victim to a tough economy and changing consumer tastes.

"Believe me, I've spent many nights looking at our sales numbers thinking, 'Why aren't we doing better?'" said Ned Atwater, owner of Atwater's deli, who runs several successful shops elsewhere and is one of the three remaining tenants at the Annapolis market.

Broadway Market, which sits close to some of Baltimore's most affluent and dynamic neighborhoods, has seen a decline in the last few years as the number of tenants has dwindled.

The development firm CB Richard Ellis plans a renovation of the market, adding a level containing 25,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. The plan also calls for the development of several vacant storefronts outside of the market.

Sophia Para, the owner of Sophia's Place, a market and bakery specializing in Polish goods at the Broadway Market, has mixed feelings about the proposed renovation, which was first discussed in 2006 and is to be called Market Place at Fells Point.

Para, who has operated her stall for 25 years, is eager to sell her wares in a new, gleaming building, and expects business to increase when the market is full of new tenants. But the years of waiting, and being surrounded by empty stalls, have hurt her store.

"I've been able to survive because I have customers that come back to me," said Para, who sells 20 different kinds of sausage and Polish treats such as cheese babka and poppy seed rolls. "I have unique products. But it's been tough. There used to be a chicken place here, and people would come and get fried chicken and then come to me and get a pastry. Those people don't come here anymore."

The Broadway Market, along with the Lexington and Cross Street markets, is managed by the nonprofit Baltimore Public Markets Corp., an arrangement that allows for city oversight without officials getting mired in the everyday details of retail management.

In Annapolis, the city has direct control of the market, which many critics consider to be a problem.

Still, a new batch of Annapolis leaders is intent on making Market House a success. Mayor Joshua J. Cohen has assigned a top deputy to oversee its revitalization and has targeted next spring as a planned reopening.

"Every resident has their own idea of what the Market House should be," said Cohen. "It's highly charged and very sensitive. If we don't get it right, the project could be derailed quite easily. The fact is, the city government is responsible for the property. It's our responsibility to do it right."

The city recently announced that it is pursuing a lease agreement with Baltimore-based Lehr Jackson Associates, which has seen success in other projects such as Belvedere Square, Easton Market Square on the Eastern Shore and Faneuil Hall. Cohen has also sought City Council approval for a beer and wine license for the market, which a majority of the council is poised to support.

Lehr Jackson, the firm's principal, created a company, Gone to Market, LLC., for the Annapolis project, and has made it clear that he will only proceed if the alcohol license is granted. A majority of council members have signed on to the proposal. Jackson's proposal requires entire reconfiguration of the market's layout in an effort to take advantage of its prime location with views of the water. The revamped market would include a raw seafood bar, a fruit and vegetable market, a florist and a French bakery.

"We're going to go back and make it feel like it did in the 1950s," said Jackson. "You peel it back and take it back to its original state. We're going to give it back its character."

A local civic group recently proposed that the city abandon its plans to work with Gone to Market and instead gather more public input. Annapolis Alderman Richard Israel has proposed creating a governing body to revitalize and manage the market, a proposal that hasn't attracted much support.

The 5,000-square-foot building now holds just three businesses: the Atwater's deli, BankAnnapolis and the Italian bakery Vaccaro's.

Nikki Roden, the manager of Vaccaro's, which has leased space in the market for four years, said there are days when she'll only sell about $50 worth of pastry.

"Here's the biggest problem: The city owns the building," said Roden, who staffed the cash register on a recent afternoon, in between selling cannoli and coffee. "That should say it all right there. They just don't know how to manage it."

The market's major troubles began in 2003, when flooding caused by Tropical Storm Isabel cost the city more than $1 million in damage.

Last year, the city paid $2.5 million to Rockville-based Site Realty, which held a 20-year management lease at the building, to regain control of Market House. Troubles between tenants and Site Realty erupted after an air conditioning malfunction forced several tenants to flee. While the city is still negotiating with Jackson, both sides have agreed that the city would likely pay to reconfigure the market and to upgrade the air conditioning.

In Easton, town officials say Easton Square Market, which Jackson's development group opened last year, has been a boon to the town. The historic Eastern Shore town had no public market before the developer proposed the project but has welcomed it, said Zach Smith, an official in Easton's planning and zoning office.

"There's obviously an experience to it," said Smith. "You get to visit the different vendors selling plants, roasted peanuts, smoked meats. Nearby businesses are excited about it and feel like there's more synergy. Bringing people downtown is good for everybody."

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