The prickly and politically hazardous effort to secure a tenant to operate Annapolis's historic Market House might at last be near an end. The city announced last week that Silver Spring-based Site Realty, operator of Capitol Hill's popular Eastern Market, had won a bid to operate the city-owned landmark.
The City Council will vote on the proposal, whose details are being withheld until the council can review them this week.
The Market House has been a waterfront centerpiece since it opened in a different location in 1698. The current 5,000-square-foot building has been vacant since the end of 2004, when vendors' leases were not renewed by the city. The market, some believed, had become an eyesore, and its inexpensive fare of fried chicken, potato wedges and sandwiches no longer satisfied an increasingly wealthy downtown's changing palate.
The city gave the building a makeover, but its efforts to bring in upscale New York retailer Dean & DeLuca ended in a public relations disaster for Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D).
Within weeks of successfully bidding for the contract late last year, beating out Site Realty, Dean & DeLuca told the city it wanted out, according to a company lawyer. City Administrator Robert D. Agee continued to tell the news media and the City Council that a 20-year lease deal was imminent. In March, the city announced in a news release that Dean & DeLuca had partnered with fish retailer Annapolis Seafood to operate the market, a claim Dean & DeLuca later disputed.
In August, the city acknowledged that Dean & DeLuca was out and that the lease would go to Annapolis Seafood, which had not bid on the contract. Moyer's critics on the council cried foul. Site Realty threatened to sue. And the debacle quickly became campaign fodder for Moyer's opponents.
Moyer, in an interview last month with The Washington Post, dourly suggested that the fiasco might cost her the election next month.
Agee and Moyer now say they mistook Dean & DeLuca's reluctance to sign as merely tough negotiating.
Moyer moved quickly to bring in new bidders after Annapolis Seafood voluntarily withdrew amid the turmoil. The city wants the market reopened by April 15.
Now some residents of Ward 1, where the Market House is located, are asking the mayor to delay action until after the Nov. 8 election. They include the two candidates seeking the Ward 1 alderman's seat held by Louise Hammond (D), who is not seeking reelection.
This new wrinkle has left Moyer exasperated. "The same people that were criticizing the process for moving too slow are now saying. 'Slow it down,' " Moyer said. "What does that mean, start the whole process over?"
-- Ray Rivera
The Market House on Annapolis's waterfront has been vacant since the end of 2004.