Club boom sparks hope

Nightlife: Investors and business leaders hope a handful of new nightclubs will breathe life into downtown

June 17, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

In a boost to Baltimore's nightlife, downtown's southeast corridor is being converted into the city's newest nightclub district.

Seven nightclubs and three bars are scheduled to open before year's end in a 15-block area between the Inner Harbor and Saratoga Street, near the Jones Falls Expressway.

An additional half -dozen nightclubs are proposed for the area.

The clubs' investors say the expansion reflects the booming national economy and the city's growing tourism trade.

The operators of the new clubs -- which will have a combined capacity of more than 6,500 patrons -- are betting that they can feed off each other and form a regional powerhouse of nightlife and music.

"These new clubs in Baltimore will bring more people, not only from the D.C. area, but from New York and other cities," said Ricardo Companioni, manager of dance and Latin charts for Billboard magazine.

Some downtown business owners worry that club hoppers will increase crime, but police and liquor board officials said the area is thriving peacefully with partygoers.

The district is anchored by the Cordish Co. Power Plant Live project, where bars, nightclubs, restaurants and retail shops are opening in the former Brokerage Mall next to Port Discovery at 34 Market Place.

Nearby, posh nightclubs based on New York City nightlife are being incorporated into the shells of historic buildings.

The club owners, who are investing $1 million to $2 million to renovate each property, say the establishments will be the region's trendiest.

"I am so very pleased with all the activity, especially the quality of clubs and the markets they are looking to address," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It really helps in our attempts to move Baltimore to the next level as a major destination."

Nightclub owners say the future of the Baltimore's nightlife industry rests -- judging from cities where nightclubs also are rebounding, such as Miami -- in VIP rooms, patrons in designer clothing, plush decor and elaborate lighting and sound systems.

Tourism boosters and downtown officials applaud the trend, saying dancing and music will help bring thousands more to Baltimore.

"It is fabulous what they have done inside some of these places," said Maj. Steven McMahon, commander of the Central District, which includes downtown. "They are defini- tely putting money in these places to make them class-A nightclubs."

Mayor Martin O'Malley pushed the Board of Estimates to approve a low 75-year lease on the Brokerage in December to create Power Plant Live, but much of the growth in downtown nightlife is occurring piecemeal.

"I am not sure why it is happening, but all of the sudden we have that fairly focused activity in that area," said Michele L. Whelley, executive vice president of the Downtown Partnership business association.

To make sure they attract the thousands of upwardly mobile patrons they need to succeed, the owners say they are banking on:

More high-tech companies moving to the city, bringing more young executives.

The completion of 1,300 apartments scheduled to open downtown this year.

Being able to stay open until 4 a.m., even if alcohol sales must stop by 2 am. (Several of the new nightclubs plan to apply for liquor and zoning board permits necessary to remain open after-hours.)

Keeping in town what club owners estimate are thousands of Baltimore residents who travel to Washington for nightlife and attracting more regular patrons from the mid-Atlantic region.

The two nightclubs that have opened in the area since late last year report brisk business.

"Whether it is Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, it is crowded downtown," McMahon said. "From what I see, from the police standpoint, this city is doing very well with visitors."

McMahon has beefed up patrols by shifting officers downtown between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. He said the crowds are well behaved and that there has been no increase in crime or major incidents.

Have A Nice Day Cafe opened in November as the first tenant in the Power Plant Live complex, which has an arena liquor license that permits patrons to carry alcohol from bar to bar and onto the plaza.

Eric Altmore, the cafe manager, said the 15,000-square-foot, 1970s-style club is the biggest and busiest of the chain's 23 U.S. locations.

"Downtown can create some dramatic settings," said Reed Cordish, a vice president at the Cordish Co., which oversees the complex.

A second Power Plant Live tenant, Bar Baltimore, is set to open this weekend. Howl at the Moon, a piano bar, is scheduled to open in September, and the Lava Lounge will move from the Inner Harbor to Power Plant Live in December and open as a nightclub and concert hall.

The $10 million Power Plant Live project should be fully leased with 14 tenants by spring, Cordish said.

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