Market House makeover

Market House in Annapolis has some appealing food: Atwater's soups and sandwiches and Vaccaro's Italian pastries. It has a scenic location, the Annapolis waterfront. What it doesn't have is customers. It can be lonely there at lunchtime. Rather than flourishing, this public market is floundering. This can and must change.

Former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, who resides outside of Annapolis, has agreed to head a 25-member advisory committee to examine the big-picture question of how to redevelop the Annapolis City Dock, the 5-acre downtown area that the market sits in. The goal is to submit a plan by next fall that addresses the area's transportation issues, parking, zoning and retail mix.

Meanwhile, the company slated to renovate Market House, Gone to Market LLC, will today outline its plans. Representatives of the firm will brief members of the city council in the late afternoon and then hold an evening open house at the market where citizens can view the proposals and offer their input. A similar open house will be held next Monday night at the market.

The market is a good place to jump-start revitalizing downtown Annapolis. The one-story building, located in the heart of the city, has a rich if stormy civic history. Once, a Saturday night visit there was "like a crowded jostling tour of a county fair, with a carnival thrown in for good measure " — at least that's how Annapolis resident Don Riley described it in a 1959 article in a Sunday Sun magazine article.

Now the market is quiet and folds up at 5 p.m. This January, the market will shut down as crews renovate the 5,000-foot space. It is slated to reopen in the spring, reconfigured with 12 merchants who will sell meat, chicken, produce and seafood, as well as prepared foods.

The management structure of the market is also being redesigned, taking daily operational duties out of the hands of city hall and into those of Gone to Market. This is a smart move. As Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen notes, running a city market is not a core mission of government. Lehr Jackson, who heads Gone to Market, has had experience setting up operations in Boston's Faneuil Hall and New York's Grand Central Station, as well as markets in Easton and Baltimore's Belvedere Square.

History shows the perils of mixing politics with managing the Annapolis market. In 1968, the city council called the market an eyesore and voted to tear it down. That decision was reversed, stopped by two forces. First a petition to keep the market open was signed by some 4,000 residents. Second, an heir to one of the Annapolitans who donated the site to the city in 1784 filed suit, saying that if the city wasn't going to use the land as a market — a condition of the donation — ownership reverted to him.

Eventually, elected officials voted to renovate rather than raze the structure. In the years that followed, there have been additional renovations, among them an ill-fated effort that in 2005 left the market with inadequate air conditioning and ventilation. This meant that cooks couldn't cook and bakers couldn't bake in the market. They have to ship in the goods, a business-killing condition that this winter's renovation should remedy.

Markets that work, Mr. Jackson says, are ones that offer unique merchandise — locally produced goods — in a vibrant setting overseen by experienced management. He thinks the Annapolis market, like the one in Easton, could become a combination of indoor and outdoor venues set up close to shops and restaurants. That way, market-goers could buy goods and also sit down to eat and drink. He contends that a seafood operation serving plates of Chesapeake Bay oysters in the market should be able to offer customers a glass of Chablis or a beer to go with the mollusks. He is right. And this spring, the prohibition against the sale of alcohol in the market should be lifted.

But beyond wine and oysters, the Market House revival will depend on the right mix of shops and on smart, flexible management. It could once again become a place of civic engagement, a role it played in the city's past. But only if it works financially.

As new shopping centers have sprouted on the edges of the city, its downtown business has suffered. Bringing this area back to life is the big-picture task that Mr. Schmoke's commission will tackle. Factors that figure heavily in the success of any revival will be traffic flow and parking. Downtown's main attraction, the Annapolis harbor, is currently ringed with parking lots. As one wag put it, parked cars get the million-dollar view. Moving parking away from the harbor's edge — say, to newly constructed parking garage — and letting shoppers shuttle or walk a few blocks to the harbor seems a path worth pursuing.

One of the joys Annapolis offers is walking its scenic streets. Once Market House is again filled with good food and drink, once it resumes its historic role as the community focal point, once it cooks and bakes again, customers will come.