Annapolis officials are evaluating proposals from 15 vendors to revive the nearly empty Market House, a city-owned 19th-century waterfront building that formerly was a bustling food, shopping and tourist hub.
Interested vendors include: four business owners seeking to assume full operation of the 5,000-square-foot building by the City Dock; those who want either short-term or long-term leases for individual sections for sales of food, pet treats and gifts, and, in the case of one, wants to have a green-focused home there for volunteers and activists.
It's now up to city officials whether to seek one or more long-term tenants and hammer out leases, and to decide how to manage or oversee Market House operation. Only three businesses, two selling food and the third a bank, are still open there. Officials will have to decide whether they'd rather deal with one operator who may sublet space to other vendors, or whether the city wants to deal with multiple vendors.
Mayor Joshua Cohen said Friday that he would like to see Market House in full swing this fall with a long-term tenant or tenants, but has no firm timetable in mind because he doesn't want the city to act hastily.
"The Market House needs to be authentically Annapolis," the mayor said, noting it competes with malls and shopping districts in the region. "We need to offer something unique to make Market House a destination for residents and visitors alike, something that will make people who have been there say [to people coming to the area], 'Hey, you need to stop in Annapolis at the Market House, they have the best crab cakes, or the best raw bar,' or whatever it is."
Then, he said, Market House can be an enormous economic boost for the downtown area.
"I think now is the time for the city of Annapolis to take a fresh approach and solve the long-term picture for the Market House," Cohen said, later adding that "if it makes sense to get some short-term tenants for the summer, then we will look at that."
The market has been beset by problems in recent years. It was renovated after being devastated by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 and then leased to a private operator. But soon many tenants complained that the building had become little more than a food court, and they fled. Lawsuits were filed, and the city bought the lease back from a private company for $2.5 million last year. Ever since, the question has been how to revive the Market House.
While the mayor has the authority to rent space to short-term tenants without permission from the city council — and some aldermen wish he'd execute short-term leases immediately while the long-term plan is in discussion — the long-term decisions require council votes. Among them is how to run the market, and one oversight proposal is on the table.
He and others see the building as a centerpiece for the Historic District. By law, it can't be a financial drain on the city — but it need not turn a profit for Annapolis government.
The four full-space proposals are for:
•A grocery-style market with a cafe.
•A traditional city market with a cafe and arts venue.
•An urban-style market with seating and a vendor mix.
•An everyday-use market with a cafe and other seating
The Council's Economic Matters Committee plans to make this month what could be the first of several trips to see existing markets and speak with operators and vendors.
On June 16, the committee is scheduled to head to the new Easton Market Square, said Alderman Fred Paone, who heads the committee. The sole Republican on the council, he represents Ward 2, one of the city districts bordering on Ward 1, which is the home of Market House.
"We will talk to Lehr Jackson. We want to see what the setup is, look at it, and get a feel of what it's like, maybe talk to some of the merchants," Paone said. Jackson's company designed the market in Easton and submitted a proposal with a partner experienced in real estate development and management
Richard Israel, Ward 1 alderman and committee member, said he is impressed with Jackson's experience in creating markets. Israel has proposed legislation creating a seven-member governing body for Market House — four people experienced in food and retail sales, two prospective customers and one member of the neighboring business community — but "I told the mayor I want it postponed if it would be worth pursuing negotiations with Mr. Jackson."
But one alderman said that given the city's troubled recent past with Market House, he thinks the city should sell it, with stipulations for its use and right of first refusal for the city to buy it back if the new owners want to sell it — but others said they don't expect that to happen.
"Until we actually have somebody to knows how to run a business, we won't have a successful Market House," said Ross Arnett, who represents Ward 8, the Eastport community that begins a few blocks from the Market House.
"I'd like to see us create a successful market that is a locus of activity," he said. For example, Eastern Market on Capitol Hill not only serves its immediate Washington community, but is a destination market, especially when the weekend flea market is open, he said.
To read all of the Market House proposals online, go to: annapolis.gov/Government/Departments/CentralServices/MarketHouse/markethouseproposals.aspx