Too many cooks at Annapolis market

Our view: Rebidding Market House plan unlikely to succeed if Annapolis businesses, city council members and others can't stop second-guessing

February 21, 2011

The recent withdrawal of a plan to renovate Market House, the ailing city-owned market in downtown Annapolis, was an example of too many cooks spoiling the broth. It was a good plan that had too many critics.

Gone to Market LLC, an enterprise whose principals have a track record renovating markets in Baltimore, Easton and New York, withdrew its plan for the City Dock market, citing lack of public support. A lease between Gone to Market and the city had been criticized in the Annapolis media and in some quarters as a sweetheart deal, drawn up behind closed doors. But the real problem is the lack of consensus about what the market is supposed to be, with some citizens proposing broadening the use of the 5,000 square-foot facility beyond selling food to include using it as a tour center for the city and a site for daily visits from area school children.

Mayor Joshua J. Cohen has said that the city is going to solicit new requests for proposals for the market renovation. Lehr Jackson, head of Gone to Market, said his group plans to submit another proposal. The city will then evaluate the plans and choose a winner, a process that could take months. Meanwhile the historic market, which has missed several dates for reopening, has only a bank as a tenant. The City Council did recently rule out selling the market and also approved funds for making repairs on the structure.

While we applaud transparency in government, we hope that the new plan will not be subjected to the immense second-guessing that has plagued both the Gone to Market proposal and prior Market House operators. Wise though they are, the mayor and City Council members should not be the ones to decide, for example, what hours coffee can be served at the market. The mayor and City Council should give the market operator the flexibility to run the enterprise, not make every business decision subject to city approval.

Mayor Cohen has been forthcoming about the issues involved in repairing Market House. In a video presentation on his website (www.mayorcohen.com), he has spelled out some cold financial facts — that about half a million dollars is needed to improve, among other things, a faulty air conditioning system (a fiasco inherited from a prior administration), that sprinklers have to be installed because without them the market is in violation of the city fire code, and that the market is not a gold mine. If the market did $4 million of business a year — a generous estimate — the market operator would have received $112,000 under the now withdrawn lease, and the city would have received $32,000, Mayor Cohen said. That's hardly a sweetheart deal.

Worries that a revived market would "steal" business from nearby merchants are shortsighted. A lively market will draw customers to the area, and customers are what downtown Annapolis, with its Main Street vacancies, sorely needs. Back in 1980 restaurateurs in Baltimore's Little Italy were worried that the then-new Harborplace complex would siphon off their customers. That didn't happen. Instead Harborplace attracted throngs to downtown Baltimore, and Little Italy thrives; it may be in better shape now than Harborplace. A rejuvenated Market House could do that in a smaller scale for Annapolis, but only if the community stops squabbling and seizes the opportunity to revive its downtown.

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