CHARLESTON, S.C. --- A $5.5 million, 18-month face lift has given a new look to the Charleston City Market, among the oldest city markets in the nation and one of the most popular attractions in this coastal city that attracts millions of visitors each year.
"Everything exceeded our expectations. It turned out better than we imagined," said Barry Newton, the general manager of the market.
Repairs and spruce-ups were needed for the four buildings that date to the early 1800s and were last improved almost 40 years ago. In all, the market buildings encompass 37,000 square feet and have almost 150 vendors.
The work that began early last year consisted of repairing roofs, painting, repointing brick, adding signs and other upgrades to three open-air market buildings in the city's Historic District. The last phase consisted of renovations to the adjoining enclosed Great Hall building that reopens to the public on Monday.
The changes to the Great Hall should be most noticeable to visitors.
A dark sidewalk winding past enclosed individual shops has been replaced with a center aisle open to stalls on each side like a shopping mall. Skylights and new lighting along the length of the air-conditioned building make it more airy and show off the architectural details like roof beams.
The hall boasts 20 tenants -- it had 11 before the renovations -- and is anchored by the Charleston Historic Foundation shop. There are two new eateries and new merchants including an outdoor shop, toy store and Gullah art gallery celebrating the culture of slave descendants on the Carolinas coast.
In the market, visitors can buy everything from clothing and jewelry to Gullah sweetgrass baskets. There are about 60 basket weavers in the market area.
Tourism is an $18.4 billion industry in South Carolina, and Charleston welcomes about 4 million visitors a year. Newton estimates most of them visit the market during their stay. "You have to come to the City Market. It's a must-do," he said.
"This is like Christmas in June," said Chuma Nwokike, who is opening his Chuma Gullah Gallery in the Great Hall to complement his other gallery uptown.
Bill Ussery is no newcomer. He has had a shop in the market since the last renovation.
"We were just blown out of the water because it's so beautiful after 37 years," he said, adding it may be easier to attract customers to his gourmet shop now than before when visitors had to enter individual stores in the Great Hall.
"Now, once people are in the building, they are really in your store," he said.
The market land was given to Charleston in 1788 by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, with the provision it always be used for a public market.
There is a common misconception the market was used to sell slaves before the Civil War, but it was not.
The market renovation of the 1970s was a catalyst for the renaissance in Charleston in recent decades.