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Mobtown Beat

Scene Stealers

Vague language in City Council's live entertainment bill creates anxiety and confusion in arts community

By Michael Byrne | Posted 4/8/2009

On Tuesday, March 31, a small crowd is milling about in the lobby of the Morgan State University Communication Center. Some folks appear to be students, others are musicians. Some are fans, some are club owners, and some are promoters. Earlier, the fire marshal had declared the city's second hearing on City Council Bill 08-0163 (known broadly as the "live entertainment bill") full, and this was the overflow. Just before this reporter is ushered into a standing crowd at the back of the hearing, a grumble of "one last party" rises from a small cluster of would-be attendees.

The mood Bill 08-0163 has inspired almost uniformly across every subsection of Baltimore's live-entertainment culture is that it would be a cancer on a music scene that's recently become one of the country's most exciting, vibrant, and fertile. Oft-cited as proof of this is a Rolling Stone piece from last year, calling Baltimore's the "best scene," and its wake of similar paeans to our city from across the world. As it is currently written, opponents of the bill say, the live-entertainment legislation poses a threat to the vitality of the city's performance community.

The bill, they say, doesn't have just one fatal flaw. Rather, it threatens the arts community on several fronts. It would impose a licensing fee that the city estimates to be about $1,500 per year for every venue, no matter how small. There are no exemptions for nonprofits, no grandfather clauses for existing venues, and the fee structure could prove calamitous for smaller arts spaces. The bill contains a "moral character" clause that would allow investigations of a venue's business and criminal history, and it gives neighborhoods hefty veto power over proposed and existing venues (according to the bill, 10 neighbor complaints from within a 10-block radius of a venue would be enough to put it under review). Grumbles in the music community have assailed the bill as a money-grab--ideally, it will be revenue-neutral according to the city--a gentrification seed, and a crackdown on smaller, relatively unregulated venues. At a meeting of the Baltimore Live Arts Supporters last week, someone drops a Third Reich reference.

At the hearing, opponents of the bill run through the gamut of problems before the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee and the Land Use and Transportation Committee. By the end of the two hours' worth of testimony, the council members in attendance look worn.

"I was more surprised with the level of misrepresentation than opposition," says City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who initiated the live-entertainment bill in 2008, in a telephone interview after the hearing. "When you see letters going out that we're trying to shut down promoters and DJs . . . We did a lot of work trying to educate people about the bill."

Save for a few, most of those concerned about the bill support its ultimate goal--opening up zoning for new live-entertainment venues in the city--and don't doubt its intentions. What the bill amounts to is deceivingly uncomplicated: Primarily, it's a revision of the city's zoning codes to allow taverns, restaurants, and dance clubs to operate in a handful of additional business and industrial zoning districts, from which they've previously been prohibited. In theory, this should make it cheaper to open a club, and it allows restaurants and bars in those zones to host live music. At the hearing, Rawlings-Blake points out that under the current laws a restaurant like Pazo, which operates in a warehouse-y area between Fells Point and Harbor East, cannot have live music of any sort; this bill could change that.

When the bill was first introduced, the plan was to eliminate zoning for live-entertainment venues entirely, making them subject only to a licensing board. A newer draft of the bill, released last Thursday, would leave zoning restrictions in place, but expand the number of zones where live entertainment could be staged.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District), who is skeptical of the bill, says she was concerned about the first draft's proposal to take live entertainment out of zoning entirely. "I want to protect residentially zoned neighborhoods from live entertainment," she says. But according to Ryan O'Doherty, spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, the new bill would prevent that from happening.

"We recognize some underlying zoning [in the revised bill]," he says. "If you're in a strict residential zone, you couldn't get the license."

Rawlings-Blake and O'Doherty insist that this bill is intended to affect "taverns, restaurants, and dance halls," as opposed to smaller venues, galleries or performance spaces in the city, such as the Red Room in Waverly, the Current Gallery in Downtown, or schools or churches that host performances. "If it is not a bar or restaurant," O'Doherty says, "this will not apply to them."

The problem is that the bill does not make clear distinctions about which venues it will impact. One big hitch, for example, is the "dance hall" provision. Establishments like the Hexagon in Station North, for instance, which is classified as a "concert hall" under current zoning laws would still technically fall under the auspices of the bill, even if City Hall claims that's not its intention, because it occasionally hosts dancing.

"I think a lot of the resistance to the bill has to do with the vague language," says Red Room co-curator John Berndt, one of the louder voices among those concerned about the bill. "I have a feeling we're several drafts off from a final bill."

Indeed, in the footnotes of the current draft bill are suggestions from the city's planning and housing departments, including one that suggests that currently operating venues be grandfathered in and exempt from the new licensing requirements.

And that could mean a lot for venues across the city, particularly smaller ones that would find the $1,500 per year licensing fee particularly difficult to bear. The small, vulnerable venues that have fostered the live-entertainment culture that has created such a vibrant scene in the city would be the hardest hit.

"I'm lucky that I have a lot of young talented people in my district," Councilwoman Clarke says. "They're involved with a lot of wonderful performance events; it's a whole world out there that's thriving. They're not making a lot of money and they love Baltimore. I don't want to hurt anything that they have going."

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