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Creative Competition

Seven Neighborhoods Vie to Become Baltimore's Official Arts and Entertainment District

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/21/2001

from Pigtown to Highlandtown, from Reservoir Hill to Sowebo, neighborhood activists and creative types have for several months now had art on the brain. And, no, it has nothing to do with fiberglass fish. They have been preparing proposals outlining why their neck of the woods should be anointed the city's first Arts and Entertainment District.

State legislation enacted in July allows as many as six such districts to be established statewide every year. Each county or incorporated municipality gets to nominate one district for the honor in a given year; the deadline for nominations is the end of this month, and the first round of winners will be named in February. The lucky designees will get to offer breaks on income and other taxes to resident artists and performers, plus property-tax credits for rehabbing buildings into artists' housing and access to state economic-development funds to assist arts-related projects.

Or something like that. Though the arts-district plan is based on a concept that was implemented in Providence, R.I., five years ago, the exact nature and scope of the benefits involved is murky at best. "The tax benefits are impressive, but they are still being hammered out," admits Karen Glenn, spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED), which will choose the districts and run the program.

Still, even though they're not sure what nuts-and-bolts payoff they're trying to get, seven Baltimore neighborhoods or groups are eagerly seeking the designation. The candidates outlined their qualifications to be officially artistic in written proposals submitted to the city in September, and made oral presentations to a mayoral advisory committee earlier this month. Mayor Martin O'Malley is expected to announce which of the city bids will be forwarded to the state early next month.

"The tax benefits are exciting . . . but what I think people are really interested in is the designation itself, which is something that can be marketed," says Megan Hamilton, director of the Southeast Baltimore-based Creative Alliance, which is hoping to win the designation for the Highlandtown/Patterson Park area. "For us it means taking the arts icon we've decided to foreground in our neighborhood and giving it an economic-development component."

In May, The Sun quoted the mayor saying he viewed district designation as "a tool to revitalize an area that has character and great potential but a lot of vacant storefronts." "That sounds exactly like us," says artist/activist/gallery owner Bill Adler, who's working to see his historic Sowebo neighborhood--home to both many artists and many boarded-up buildings--gain arts-district status. Adler names a half-dozen arts-related renovation projects that the designation could help engender, including his longtime desire to see the upper floors of the Hollins Market rehabbed for use by artists and the community. Beyond those specifics, he echoes Hamilton's sentiments about the symbolic value of the designation, saying it would help "legitimize" his neighborhood's arts-friendly status.

Just south of Sowebo, an eight-block stretch along Washington Boulevard in the heart of Pigtown is also seeking the distinction. Last year this same area was selected to participate in the Baltimore Main Street program, a revitalization effort aimed at older commercial districts. Jack Danna, manager of Pigtown's Main Street program, says the arts-district designation dovetails nicely with this effort. "It would add to our list of incentives," he says. "The idea is to build from strengths." Danna adds that his community is currently home to many artists, and that the area's modest, two-story rowhouses adapt well as live-in studios.

Conversely, proponents of Reservoir Hill as an artists' district say that their neighborhood's expansive Victorian rowhouses would make for good studio/living spaces, especially as artists' co-ops. Reasonable rents or mortgages and proximity to the Maryland Institute College of Art has led some 60 artists to move to the neighborhood, says Chartreuse Robinson, president of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council. Arts-district status would help the struggling community build on that trend, she says.

By far the largest proposed district covers almost all of midtown Baltimore, its borders largely contiguous with the boundaries of the Midtown Community Benefits District (MCBD), which is promoting it. "The larger the base, the more people you have, the more [impact] the district can have," MCBD director of operations Charles Smith says. "And we wanted to be inclusive. We wanted established galleries, institutions like the Walters, as well as areas that are not flourishing."

Midtown's proposed district, which runs from Saratoga Street clear up to North Avenue, overlaps partially with a smaller one proposed for the blocks surrounding Pennsylvania Station. The boundaries of this proposed Penn Station Arts District reach as far north as 21st Street and include the artist-occupied Copy Cat and Cork Factory industrial buildings in the 1500 and 1600 blocks of Guilford Avenue. "The idea is to plant a flag in a part of town that needs its identity further defined," says David Crandall, an arts writer and video artist who helped organize the group of artists and businesspeople behind the Penn Station proposal. "What is an arts-and-entertainment district? Something other than a drug-and-crime district, we hope."

Perhaps the most controversial bid is coming from the Cordish Co., which is seeking arts-district status for its Power Plant Live collection of bars and nightclubs in the former Brokerage complex downtown. Though Power Plant Live is home to the nonprofit Maryland Art Place gallery, some artists question the validity of a large development company seeking arts-district status for a commercial enterprise, as opposed to a needy neighborhood.

Citing corporate policy not to discuss ongoing projects, Cordish spokesperson Allison Parker provides few details about the company's proposal. She says only that Cordish would use district status to create "a fun, funky area attractive to tourists at the center of the city . . . a perfect location for artists' work to be seen."

Kirby Fowler, the city's special assistant for economic and neighborhood development, helped organize the mayoral committee that reviewed both the written and live proposals. "All the presentations were excellent," he says. "Baltimore is fortunate to have such a strong arts community. We told every single group that even if they are not chosen we want them to continue with their arts efforts and to look to the city to help advance them."

The number of proposals from the rest of the state that Baltimore's arts-district candidate will be competing against won't be known until after the Dec. 1 state deadline. DBED spokesperson Glenn says her department has received "a ton of phone calls about the program" and that inquiries have come "from the Eastern Shore, Western Maryland, and everywhere in between." If Baltimore is ultimately not awarded a district in February, the city can reapply during the next application period.

Sowebo's Adler is philosophical about the outcome. "Whoever gets it, I'm sure they will use it to help our city be a better place," he says. "I think there are enough artists to go around."

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