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By Ginger Gibson
Staff writer

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Laura Do had been selling seafood and spices at the French Market for more than 20 years when she stopped offering fresh shrimp and crawfish last summer, limiting her inventory to dry and bottled goods such as hot sauce.

Dropping the seafood was prompted by the French Market’s decision to begin renovation last August of the 200-year-old market’s colonnaded flea market and farmers market “sheds.”

But even though the overhaul cut the revenue of Do’s French Market Seafood Co. considerably, she and many other vendors have toughed out the disruption and look forward to returning to more normal conditions in the fall.

“It cost us our business because of the renovations,” Do acknowledged. But for all that, she said, “We want to stay. We’ve been in the market for so long.”

The open-air market’s $5 million facelift includes improved air circulation, a fresh coat of paint, leveled floors, additional rest rooms and better accommodations for vendors who sell produce and fresh foods. The remodeled market also will have areas for visitors to dine on prepared food.

The overall goal was to “restore the market’s authenticity and sense of place through a series of physical improvements,” according to Billes Architecture, the firm that is carrying out the project.

One aim is to have more fresh-food vendors in the market, said Patricia Henry, interim director of the French Market Corp., the city agency that runs the market.

The first half of the project — renovating the flea market section — will be completed in a week, with the entire project due to be completed by Oct. 31.

Candle vendor David Aranda sees the renovations as restoring the market to what it was 30 years ago.

“We’re looking forward to it getting open. It’s a long time coming,” said Aranda, who works for French Market Candles, a 7-year-old company that specializes in soy candles. “Anything that will bring people back down here and get the French Market to the original way it used to be is a plus.”

John Biondini, a Lake Charles resident and longtime French Market customer, said he remembers the days when local restaurateurs would visit the market each morning to buy fresh produce and seafood. When Biondini brought a Canadian friend to visit the market, he was disappointed to find it changed.

“This used to be quite different,” Biondini said, pointing to tables covered with purses, T-shirts and sunglasses. “Now it’s a clip joint, a tourist trap. For a tourist trap, it’s great; for the locals, it’s a zero.”

The renewed emphasis on fresh foods, groceries and eateries is exactly what Biondini wants to see. “It would give tourists the full feeling; you get the full flavor of everything,” he said.

The move back toward the days when the French Market was primarily an outlet for fresh produce began about 18 months before Hurricane Katrina with the opening of a weekly Crescent City Farmers Market.

Operating under a nonprofit marketing infrastructure run through Loyola University, it was open each Wednesday, and once a week, the French Market was home to a flock of farmers selling their own produce, as was the case through much of the city’s history. In more recent years, the market had had only one permanent produce seller.

The Wednesday farmers market, with 12 to 25 vendors, had attracted an eclectic local following that included both senior citizens and “tattooed youngsters” from the Bywater and Marigny areas, said Richard McCarthy, who oversaw several farmers markets throughout New Orleans before Katrina.

Demand at the French Quarter site is not yet strong enough to justify resuming the Wednesday market, McCarthy said. But he hopes eventually to return.

“We’re here for the long haul,” he said. “We’re interested in building stable institutions that can be part of people’s lives and livelihoods.”

Deborah Harkins, chairwoman of the French Market Corp.’s revitalization committee, said she is looking forward to the return of the farmers market — an aspect she sees as vital to the remodeling.

“The whole idea was to become a center of commerce and a place where locals would go to purchase merchandise, like it was once upon a time,” Harkins said. “Overall, it should make for a much more pleasant place for both the vendors and the public.”