Now that Annapolis' Market House has shed an 18-month legal battle, city leaders have begun finding tenants to fill the historic landmark and planning its $1 million renovation.
"The city is happy to close the chapter on litigation and focus again on making the Market House the centerpiece of Annapolis," said Jonathan P. Kagan, the city's lawyer. "That's the goal."
Specifically, Mayor Ellen O. Moyer's goal is to fix the heating and cooling system and move short-term tenants into the nearly vacant property by Friday, she said. Bigger changes will come next year.
Market House, a 150-year-old property on City Dock, was once called "the cafeteria of Annapolis," drawing thousands of tourists. Now, only two tenants occupy the space - a bank and a bakery.
The city is looking into florists, artists and grocers, among other options, Moyer said.
"We want it to be more friendly," said Moyer, who mentioned the possibility of live music on the patio.
Cecilia Benalcazar, a former tenant and resident of Annapolis, said Market House originally appealed to her because of its promise of foot traffic.
"It's a great mix" of tourists and residents, she said. "It's a fun town; there's events that go on, and it seemed like a good opportunity to capture all of that."
Market House's attraction plummeted after a 2003 flood and a host of legal problems caused by an air conditioning malfunction in 2006.
The city of Annapolis paid the private company that managed the property, Market House Ventures LLC, $2.5 million to end its lease early and regain control in May. Meanwhile, tenants left and others entangled the city and MHV in lawsuits.
"It was dismaying to see their businesses fail and infuriating that they were told they were responsible for the failures," said John F. Morkan III, who represented the five vendors who sued.
Benalcazar emphasized that her business, The Fresh Stop restaurant, failed because of Market House's management. She said the property developed the feel of a "construction zone," as temporary heating and cooling units littered the sidewalk.
But city officials said Market House's future is safe in their hands.
"We're thrilled to have the opportunity to move forward with this," said Robert O. Schuetz, director of the city's central services administration, who is helping to oversee the market's evolution.
That's not to say the transition is straightforward. Its trash facilities, lack of storage, limited parking and surrounding windows all pose a challenge, constraining whichever future tenants move in, Schuetz said.
Each tenant would also have to fit in a 300-square-foot stall, Moyer said. No intensive cooking will be allowed, as that's what led to the lawsuits in the first place.
In another road block, the City Council recently denied a bill that would let Moyer and central services sign the leases. Moyer said the council should reconsider Monday.
All of the tenants would sign only short-term leases because Market House will be vacated Jan. 3 to undergo its $1 million renovations.
The property should be redone by next spring, although Moyer said plans are about a week behind schedule.
Despite that slight setback, Moyer said she's just happy to be able to continue chugging along.
"We'll begin to take applications for permanent tenants, but that won't be decided until much later in the fall," she said.
Benalcazar, who owns Annapolis' Main Street Mini Mart, said she'd be reluctant to return to Market House as a permanent tenant.
"All is well as far as my future is concerned," she said. "I'll start another food business in Annapolis. As far as Market House is concerned, I'm not sure. I'm a little tainted on that."
Benalcazar and New Jersey corporation PPCF Inc. won a total of about $500,000 from MHV, the property's ex-manager, on June 8, said Neil S. Hyman, MHV's lawyer. PPCF Inc. ran five stalls in Market House. The other three vendors who sued, the principals of the Galway Bay restaurant and the operators of Lee's Ice Cream and Auntie Anne's Pretzels, settled with MHV on June 11.
All three showed up in court Monday to support the two former tenants still trapped in litigation, Benalcazar said.
MHV has not decided whether to appeal, Hyman said Tuesday. First the lawyers must resolve exactly how much MHV owes the vendors after offsets, and then MHV will think about its next step, he said.
Moyer and Schuetz hosted a heavily attended meeting late last month so residents could offer their input on the future of Market House.
Participants discussed three goals: create an inviting, safe public place; provide space for local businesses; and attract shoppers downtown.
"The administration will sit down and ... put together some sort of strategy for how to build on this," Schuetz said. "It was an amazingly positive event."