After trouble, Annapolis' public market on the verge of revitalization

Historic public markets in Annapolis and Baltimore struggle, rebound

  • Walter Michalski, 83, has a cup of coffee at Vikki's Fells Point Deli in the north pavilion before going to the south pavilion to have another cup.
Walter Michalski, 83, has a cup of coffee at Vikki's Fells… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
September 29, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Perched on the waterfront in the heart of a historic downtown, the centuries-old public market in Maryland's capital city has perhaps the most important ingredient for success: location.

But Annapolis Market House, a developer's and a retailer's dream because of its visibility, has hit a nadir. Once a center of civic engagement where crowds gathered for a fill of town gossip, the wood-frame building with a view of a world-renowned harbor now sits nearly empty.

Just three tenants remain in the 220-year-old building, which not too long ago buzzed with local residents buying fresh produce and flowers and has been described as "the cafeteria of Annapolis." A series of management failures and a lack of consensus among city residents and government officials have thwarted revitalization efforts.

The condition is a bit of puzzle. There is no shortage of thriving historic markets in cities along the East and West coasts, from Eastern Market in D.C. to Faneuil Hall in Boston and Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Much of Maryland's quirky charm derives from the bustling public shopping spaces such as the Lexington and Cross Street markets in Baltimore.

Those venues and others evoke an earlier time, before supermarket and discount chains dominated retail life. They have survived the advent of big-box retailers by selling groceries with an ambience. In recent years, successful markets have been buoyed by the growing popularity of farmers markets coupled with a growing "buy local" movement and an increasingly health-conscious public. But Annapolis, and to a lesser extent, Baltimore, have had a tougher time sustaining those businesses. Even well-established markets like those in Baltimore dating to the 18th and 19th centuries can fall victim to a tough economy and changing consumer tastes.

"Believe me, I've spent many nights looking at our sales numbers thinking, 'Why aren't we doing better?'" said Ned Atwater, owner of Atwater's deli, who runs several successful shops elsewhere and is one of the three remaining tenants at the Annapolis market.

Broadway Market, which sits close to some of Baltimore's most affluent and dynamic neighborhoods, has seen a decline in the last few years as the number of tenants has dwindled.

The development firm CB Richard Ellis plans a renovation of the market, adding a level containing 25,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. The plan also calls for the development of several vacant storefronts outside of the market.

Sophia Para, the owner of Sophia's Place, a market and bakery specializing in Polish goods at the Broadway Market, has mixed feelings about the proposed renovation, which was first discussed in 2006 and is to be called Market Place at Fells Point.

Para, who has operated her stall for 25 years, is eager to sell her wares in a new, gleaming building, and expects business to increase when the market is full of new tenants. But the years of waiting, and being surrounded by empty stalls, have hurt her store.

"I've been able to survive because I have customers that come back to me," said Para, who sells 20 different kinds of sausage and Polish treats such as cheese babka and poppy seed rolls. "I have unique products. But it's been tough. There used to be a chicken place here, and people would come and get fried chicken and then come to me and get a pastry. Those people don't come here anymore."

The Broadway Market, along with the Lexington and Cross Street markets, is managed by the nonprofit Baltimore Public Markets Corp., an arrangement that allows for city oversight without officials getting mired in the everyday details of retail management.

In Annapolis, the city has direct control of the market, which many critics consider to be a problem.

Still, a new batch of Annapolis leaders is intent on making Market House a success. Mayor Joshua J. Cohen has assigned a top deputy to oversee its revitalization and has targeted next spring as a planned reopening.

"Every resident has their own idea of what the Market House should be," said Cohen. "It's highly charged and very sensitive. If we don't get it right, the project could be derailed quite easily. The fact is, the city government is responsible for the property. It's our responsibility to do it right."

The city recently announced that it is pursuing a lease agreement with Baltimore-based Lehr Jackson Associates, which has seen success in other projects such as Belvedere Square, Easton Market Square on the Eastern Shore and Faneuil Hall. Cohen has also sought City Council approval for a beer and wine license for the market, which a majority of the council is poised to support.

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