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Nearly an empty shell at the Broadway Market

Regulars visit the bright orange counter of Vikki’s Fells Point Diner in the Broadway Market for crab cakes, homemade coleslaw, egg salad and freshly brewed sweet tea. Their loyalty has kept the small business alive as much of the market has shut down in the midst of a long-awaited and stalled redevelopment.

“If it weren’t for them, I’d be out of business,” said owner Vikki Powers, taking a break from chopping green peppers last week while making her famous cream of crab soup for the lunchtime crowd.

Powers said her recipes and 20 years of steady business have helped her to hang on as plans for a $56 million renovation and expansion of the historic market have been delayed for two years in the recession.

The Broadway Market was established in 1784. Today it is a nearly empty shell. Dozens of stalls that once held thriving fried chicken, produce, seafood, candy and flower shops are all vacant, with only their signs remaining. The hallways that once bustled with locals offering the latest in city news and gossip are eerily abandoned, and the clacking sound of ceiling fans and a game show blasting from a television set offer the only entertainment.

“People walk in these doors and they see the empty stalls and they turn right around and leave,” Powers said of what she has seen over the past couple of years as the market has dwindled. “I don’t blame them. I would do the same thing, too.”

The market’s developer, David Holmes, said his revival plans center on creating a modern-day retail and residential hub with 155 rental units and 35,000 square feet of retail space. Those plans were approved in May 2007 by the Baltimore City Council.

Since then, Holmes and partner Daniel Winner have spent $15 million buying up a number of small businesses and properties in the 600 block of South Broadway to complete the scope of the project. On April 21, the city Board of Estimates voted to lease the market buildings to Holmes and Winner for $1 per year for a 70-year period.

In addition, the development team purchased the vacant Fells Point Comfort Station on Aliceanna Street for $275,000 and plans to add that to the development that will be known as Marketplace at Fells Point.

Financing for the project has been slow and remains incomplete. Holmes said an appraisal is scheduled for this week by HUD as part of a quest for federal underwriting of a new construction multifamily loan, one of the few avenues available for new construction today.

Holmes and Winner’s development group, South Broadway Properties LLC, is also seeking a financier to purchase $8 million in federal Recovery Zone bonds, approved for the project by the Baltimore Development Corp. this year. A July deadline looms for that, said M.J. “Jay” Brodie, BDC president.

“They’ve come a very long way,” Brodie said, adding that Clayton Homes, a maker of pre-fabricated and modular homes is a housing partner in the venture. “Ultimately, they need to make sure all the pieces are there.”

Still, Holmes said, the group is persevering. Plans include restoration of a second story to the market building, where a large restaurant could open. The first floor of that building, they say, could be home to an upscale retail chain.

The last remaining merchants in the Broadway Market today will be consolidated into the market building in the 700 block of South Broadway, which will be surrounded by a new grassy park with tables and chairs and a fountain outside of the doorway.

“We continue to press forward,” Holmes said, of the uncertainty over the project. “We are working toward wrapping up the rest of the financing. We hope to break ground in September or October this year.”

In the new lease agreement approved by the Board of Estimates in April, the developers will pay a base rent of $1 per year for 70 years and a residual rent based on revenues.

These days, though, the revenues are slim and many businesses have shut down because of that, said Salvador Ayala, owner of Sal’s Seafood, one of three remaining businesses in the market building. Sal’s sells fresh oysters, clams, shrimp and crabs as well as an assortment of fish.

“We had a lot of customers once,” he said, eating breakfast at the counter of his raw bar last week. “But now business is not so good, and parking is a pain. We’re trying to hang on and hopefully the plans will work out.”

Added Brodie, about the importance of the market redevelopment to the future of Fells Point: “It would be a real positive addition to what is already there. You have the high quality of restaurants and businesses on the waterfront, so this would go right in between and become a vital link.”