Bill creating art zones in cities passes House

Senate has passed similar bill giving areas tax breaks, aid

March 24, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In a bid to marry the arts and revitalization, the House of Delegates approved a bill yesterday allowing Baltimore and other Maryland communities to create enclaves where artists and art-related businesses could receive tax breaks and state aid.

Proponents say the legislation would promote the revival of business districts in traditional urban centers by luring artists to work and live there.

The House passage of the bill, which was strongly supported by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, follows Senate approval earlier this week of a similar measure sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore. The two versions have to be reconciled, but final passage is highly likely.

The House legislation, sponsored by Del. Joan B. Pitkin, passed 115-16, with most of the opposition coming from Republicans.

The two bills would allow counties, cities and towns to apply to the Department of Business and Economic Development to designate arts and entertainment districts within their borders.

Artists and entertainment businesses in those areas would receive property tax credits and an exemption from local admission and amusement taxes. They also would become eligible for financial assistance under an existing Department of Business and Economic Development program.

Pitkin, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the legislation is modeled after a program launched in Rhode Island in 1996 allowing the city of Providence to establish an arts and entertainment district.

The program has been widely credited with helping to spark an economic revival in Providence, a city that had fallen on hard times during the 1970s and 1980s.

"They're certainly a terrific tourist attraction," Pitkin said.

The Rhode Island legislation goes further than the bill passed yesterday, granting income and sales tax breaks as well as the property tax credits.

Pitkin said the House Ways and Means Committee eliminated the sales and income tax breaks because of concern about the loss of revenue. She said the Senate version cut the sales tax benefit but kept a provision giving artists an income tax break on the sale of their work within the district.

The bill will go to a conference committee to reconcile the two bills. Pitkin hopes to see the income tax benefit, which she described as "very symbolic," kept in the final version.

The delegate predicted the legislation would create significant incentives for artists to locate in such districts regardless of which version emerges.

The bill passed over the objections of some conservative Republicans.

Montgomery County Del. Richard LaVay warned that the bill could give too much power to the "big guy upstairs" - meaning the governor - because his appointee, the secretary of the Business and Economic Development Department, would have the final say on designating districts.

The legislation limits the number of districts that can be created to six a year, with no more than one per jurisdiction. LaVay warned that politics could influence the choices. "All kinds of mischief could happen," he said.

The bill received strong support from local officials around the state. Baltimore officials told lawmakers the legislation would be helpful in both the West Side and East Side revitalization areas.

Dani Duniho, executive director of the Maryland Downtown Development Association, told legislators the property tax credits would mostly apply to buildings that are not now generating much revenue for local jurisdictions.

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