Market morass

September 18, 2005

IN A MATTER of weeks, thousands of people will descend upon Annapolis for the annual sailboat and powerboat shows. They are two of the biggest draws of the year for Maryland's capital. Unfortunately, the City Dock will be missing one of its most popular attractions, particularly for those who like a little nosh with their navigation. The historic Market House, the city-owned marketplace patronized by generations of visitors and locals alike, won't be open. It's an embarrassment akin to Baltimore shuttering Harborplace during the peak of the tourist season. The circumstances of Market House's fate offer a cautionary tale of how public markets and politics don't mix.

This wasn't supposed to happen, of course. Market House was badly in need of renovations when the city chose to close it last year. Mayor Ellen O. Moyer wisely decided that the city should for the first time turn its management over to a private contractor. The taxpayers would finance exterior renovations but the upkeep, interior improvements and day-to-day operations would be left to Dean & Deluca, the New York-based gourmet food and mail order store. The company was awarded the Market House management contract by the city 12 months ago.

But then matters got complicated. At some point, Dean & Deluca transferred responsibility for the project to Annapolis Seafood Co., a well-regarded local restaurateur and seafood vendor. That caused delays and raised the ire of some city council members, who questioned the winning bidder's legitimacy. Under the new plan, Dean & Deluca was only going to offer its products at Market House. The contract was subsequently bottled up by a council subcommittee headed by George O. Kelley Sr., a candidate for mayor in November. Amid the criticism - much of it unfair - Annapolis Seafood owner Nick Bassford volunteered to withdraw.

Now the city has offered the contract for bid again. Mayor Moyer and the council can only hope for the best. Potential bidders may be wary of the city's charged political climate. Certainly, it's not clear whether the market's fate will be settled by Election Day. And while the mayor could have handled the matter more skillfully, Alderman Kelley's intransigence was not helpful either.

This is not the first time the market has inspired controversy. The city has more than once considered demolishing it and building something else on the site - an idea expressly forbidden by the 18th century merchants who donated the property. It was a 1968 proposal to remove it that helped jump-start the city's historic preservation movement. Market House, its exterior now refurbished but its interior vacant, could thrive - if given the chance.

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