Market House details emerge

Documents indicate city quietly sought to fill space

Moyer says issue was public

September 23, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

After a deal with an upscale New York grocer fell through late last year, Mayor Ellen O. Moyer's administration secretly sought a solution to filling the shuttered Market House in Annapolis for months, according to newly released city documents and correspondence.

Yesterday, Moyer defended the failed transaction with Dean & DeLuca, which had been expected to bring a whiff of SoHo to town.

"This was a private business negotiation, and they tried to sharpen the pencil," she said. "They wanted us to pay them to come here with a coffee cafe to get the best deal for their brand name."

Despite scores of e-mail messages that show city officials straining to present the Market House situation in a positive public light, Moyer denied any obfuscation and said all Market House business had been done in public.

"Nothing was withheld from the public," she said.

Yet city spokeswoman Jan Hardesty asked a colleague in an e-mail message: "What was that fairy tale about spinning straw into gold? Rumpelstiltskin? I'm beginning to feel that's my new role in life."

Her note, dated Dec. 8, was addressed to Michael Miron, the city's economic development director.

From last fall, the documents reflect rising uncertainty over Dean & DeLuca's intentions.

But a June 2 e-mail from Dean & DeLuca executive Dane Neller to city administrator Robert Agee says: "This is to confirm that Dean & DeLuca ... do not intend to lease the Annapolis Market House space. As you know, we had made this clear to the city some time ago."

Miron and Emory C. Harrison, the city's director of central services, traveled to New York to meet with Dean & DeLuca executives last fall, and doubts about the deal began to surface in private correspondence.

In a Dec. 7 e-mail, Harrison advised other city officials to terminate talks with the gourmet food retailer.

"Time is a'wastin'. I believe that we have screwed around with Dean and DeLuca long enough ... their proposal is no longer valid," he wrote. "Politically, we cannot afford the luxury of waiting."

Harrison decided in December to move ahead with renovations to the Market House, adding a shingle roof and a coat of paint to the historic market space in the center of City Dock.

"Further, I really don't want the Market House sitting vacant with no work going on," he said in another e-mail message. "Looks bad for the administration. Then, when a decision is made on a vendor, I'll meet with them, determine his requirements."

When Dean & DeLuca decided not to become the sole vendor after winning a request for proposals bid last fall, city officials pinned their hopes on local merchant Annapolis Seafood to take over the lease.

That solution, announced in March, did not sit well with the city council over the summer, especially with restless downtown constituents asking for action.

On June 1, Harrison wrote in an e-mail message circulated around City Hall: "Unless a miracle happens, the boat show opening [in October] is looking ominous."

Last month, Alderman George O. Kelley Sr., running as the Republican candidate for mayor, criticized the proposed deal with Annapolis Seafood as a "covert operation" and demanded that the related documents be released to reporters and aldermen.

His criticism, along with that of Alderman Louise Hammond, led Annapolis Seafood owner Nick Bassford to withdraw from the project late last month, leaving the city where it was a year ago, opening a new round of proposals with an Oct. 6 deadline. More than 30 parties have expressed interest in the site, city officials said.

The revised opening date is April 15.

Agee, who conducted the business negotiations over the past year, said yesterday that he would not second-guess himself.

"At each decision point, we made a reasonable and prudent decision," he said. "Did it end up coming to the conclusion we wanted? No.

"It's clear something happened internally at Dean & DeLuca."

As for the failed effort to bring in a new vendor, Agee said, "It meets the letter of the law."

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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