Downtown attraction to open with a bang

Tourism: City hopes the Power Plant Live entertainment complex can boost interest in Market Place plaza.

March 09, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

How's this for subtle advertising?

A 7-foot-tall neon statue of a muscle-bound utility worker wearing a hard hat rises above Market Place plaza near the Inner Harbor. He hurls thunderbolts into a huge anvil, triggering an amplified rumble and a spasm of flashes from thunderbolt-shaped lights atop dozens of poles.

The Cordish Co. plans to show off its trademark flashy style May 5, when it opens its $30 million Power Plant Live entertainment complex in a failed mall at 34 Market Place, across from Port Discovery children's museum.

The plaza will feature an outdoor bar and cafe area flanked by 13 nightclubs and restaurants. Bands will play to people eating outside, and a lighted 110-foot-tall helium balloon with a gondola will offer rides into the night sky.

City officials welcome the transformation of the mall into a 300,000-square-foot wonderland of discos, bars, restaurants, concert halls and a comedy club because they hope it will bring life to a mostly dead plaza.

They expect increased foot traffic in Market Place to help the adjacent Port Discovery children's museum, which saw its attendance drop last year.

But some observers grumble that they've seen enough of Cordish Co.'s taste. The company's style of signage is best illustrated by the huge neon Hard Rock Cafe guitar atop the Power Plant on the Inner Harbor.

"I don't think we're Las Vegas," said 1st District City Councilwoman Lois Garey. "After this, how do we stop a business on The Block from installing a neon girl kicking her leg?"

Laurie Schwartz, the city's deputy mayor for economic development, said the bright lights and outdoor cafes should encourage people to walk beyond the Inner Harbor and help spread the prosperity of the tourism zone.

"I think it will help make this part of downtown fun again," Schwartz said. "Everyone works hard from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and this will encourage people to enjoy themselves and help position the city as a center for arts, cultural events, sports and entertainment."

The complex will be built out of a row of nearly century-old brick houses that in the 1980s were converted into the Brokerage, a faux-Victorian mall that is now mostly empty.

Opening this spring are more than a dozen clubs and cafes. Among them will be McFadden's Irish Pub & Saloon, a replica of the McFadden's that has been a showcase for Irish music and food in midtown Manhattan for more than 20 years, said Reed Cordish, vice president of development for Cordish Co.

Also recently signed by the company, which has built similar complexes in Houston, Detroit and Salt Lake City, is a restaurant run by Baltimorean Steve F. de Castro called Babalou, which will feature Cuban cuisine. Others attractions include the Have a Nice Day dance club, the Improv Comedy Club, the Delta Grill restaurant, the Maryland Art Place gallery, the Havana Club, Bar Baltimore, Lucia's Italian restaurant and a cabaret-style piano music club called Howl at the Moon, Cordish said.

At the center of the complex will be a 2,000-seat music hall where rock bands and others will perform.

Cordish led a tour of the construction site this week. Workers hauled wallboard into the gutted mall, buzzed through boards and fed wires into ceiling spaces.

Outside, a bulldozer ripped up the brick plaza in front of Port Discovery.

There, the Cordish Co. plans to build a 50-foot-wide star-shaped emblem. Around this symbol - which is designed to look like an exploding star - will be dozens of cafe tables and an outdoor bar.

Visitors will be able to buy drinks under a canopy, wander around the plaza listening to live music and sit at tables to order food from a variety of restaurants, Cordish said.

From time to time during weekend nights, the neon statue at the north end of the plaza will light up and throw thunderbolts.

Roberto Marsili, president of the nearby Little Italy Community Organization, doubted the project will succeed because a similar nightclub complex called "The Fish Market" failed in the Port Discovery building in the 1980s.

But Cordish said the booming Inner Harbor East hotel and retail project nearby and the success of his company's Power Plant restaurant complex to the south are drawing more visitors to the area than came during the 1980s.

"Baltimore has lacked a premier entertainment district until now," Cordish said. "The city has asked us to deliver that, and we think we are creating one of the most lively and exciting places in the region."

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