By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - The historic City Market in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the oldest operating urban markets in the country, reopened on Sunday after a three-year $5.5 million restoration.
The overhaul sought to bring back high-end local businesses and shoppers, who had largely abandoned the site to the tourist trade, said hotelier Hank Holliday. He formed The City Market Preservation Trust LLC with two partners in 2008 to update the old market.
"It's such an important public landmark," Holliday said. "It is the epicenter of one of the most historic cities in America. The nicest neighborhoods surround it. This was a much-needed shot in the arm," he added.
Established in 1807 on a four-block stretch near Charleston Harbor, the City Market sold meat, fruit, vegetables and fish and served as a recruiting station during the Civil War. Contrary to myth, the market never sold slaves, who were imported and sold at the nearby U.S. Custom House.
For the last few decades it has sold T-shirts, crafts and the South Carolina Lowcountry's traditional West African-style sweetgrass baskets, woven by descendants of slaves from Sierra Leone.
The partners spent a year visiting other city markets -- in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans and New York City as well as Havana, Cuba and Lyon, France -- for design ideas, Holliday said.
Financed with a $5 million revenue bond from the city of Charleston, the project is expected to pay for itself with vendor fees at no cost to taxpayers, he said.
Merchants were shuffled around so that they never had to close during the three-year restoration that included re-pointing old bricks and installing modern restrooms, new flooring, new ceilings, custom cabinetry and skylights.
Restoring historic commercial property while it's open for business is "a very, very painful process," Holliday, a former Wall Street investment banker who has restored other historic properties in Charleston and Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, said.
Open 364 days a year, the City Market is the city's top free tourist attraction, according to the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The market is fully leased with 148 local merchants. Twenty upscale shops will sell area products, from sesame seed wafers to Mottahedeh & Co. china in historic Charleston patterns, in an enclosed Great Hall.
"The City Market is truly a cultural immersion experience," Helen Hill, executive director of the visitors bureau, said.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor)