New life for city nightlife

Downtown: Power Plant Live adds zest to the city's party scene with entertainment for an eclectic crowd.

September 13, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

They were looking for some young adults willing to discuss sex for a new television commercial, and the marketers of Veromax- a natural "sexual performance enhancer" - knew where to set up their camera.

Power Plant Live in downtown Balitmore.

"It's a hip, young crowd that obviously enjoys a great lifestyle," said Barry S. Ross, vice president of sales at Maryland-based Nutraceuticals, still wearing sunglasses at midnight. "We knew it was a happening place."

It has been about a year since the once-barren outdoor plaza opened to revelers - "an alcohol mall," a liquor board official calls it - and Power Plant Live is indeed a happening place. It draws everyone from office workers in business attire to guys in baseball caps and baggy shorts to young women in skimpy skirts.

Operating under what is known as an arena liquor license, Power Plant Live, at Water Street and Market Place, offers patrons an unusual venue where they can drink alcohol in the plaza. Customers can get a beer at an outdoor bar or can head outside with drinks bought at the dozen or so surrounding bars, restaurants and clubs. The result is a free-flowing, swirling party scene.

Where the mini-mall-style Fish Market and Brokerage projects both failed, Power Plant Live is succeeding. Cordish Co., which controls the Power Plant at Pier 4, has invested $30 million to give new life to creaky old buildings. The firm estimates it drew 2 million visitors last year based on sales and people counts.

The nighttime sight of a throng spilling onto the neon-bathed plaza has thrilled local officials long used to seeing that part of eastern downtown dead after dark.

While Power Plant Live might be siphoning some business from nightspots in Fells Point, the entertainment complex also appears to be pulling new business into the city.

"It's brought customers downtown that were not coming," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. Cordish took over the complex three years ago and bought it from the city for $5.5 million.

The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association promotes it as an option for visitors along with Fells Point bars and clubs such as Bohager's or Hammerjacks. BACVA president Carroll Armstrong praised the "diversity of activity" there.

At Power Plant Live, you can smoke cigars at Havana Club, eat steak at Ruth's Chris or wings at Bill Bateman's, laugh at the Improv, sing along at Howl at the Moon or dance at clubs such as Bar Baltimore - all in a compact area.

The influx of younger patrons at Power Plant Live has drawn the eye of city liquor inspectors. They say the complex, two blocks north of the Inner Harbor, must do more to prevent underage drinking, especially among college students.

"They really need to tighten up," said Samuel T. Daniels Jr., chief inspector at the liquor board. Inspectors have discovered some underage drinking and charges of selling to minors might reach the liquor board, he said.

Reed Cordish, the Cordish Co. vice president guiding Power Plant Live, said the project has "an unbelievably" good record of not serving minors and wants to keep it that way. For example, at the board's suggestion, bracelets are now used to denote legal drinkers in the plaza.

Besides, Cordish said, the spot is far more than a youth magnet. With a fancy cigar bar and chic new pan-Asian restaurant in the mix, patrons range from their mid-20s to middle age.

"It's become this gathering spot for the community," Cordish said.

As part of a costly renovation, the older buildings were fixed up and reoriented to the outside. As Cordish sees it, the resurgent plaza has come full circle. A century ago, outdoor vendors sold wares at a bustling market on the spot.

How shocked those shopkeepers would be to see it now.

On a recent Thursday night, the action at Power Plant Live was apparent from more than a block away. Torches blazed on the deck at Tiki Bob's Cantina. A big yellow smiley face beckoned comers to the retro Have a Nice Day CafM-i. Looming over it all was a sky-brightening Power Plant Live! sign.

Sounds followed sight as a cacophonous melange drifted from the plaza. Sultry Cuban rhythms from Babalu Grill mixed with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" while an incessant thump thump of house music elbowed in from across the way.

As the hour grew later, the crowd grew thicker. One man wore a "For Rent Hourly" T-shirt. Two young women skittered by, looking like Britney Spears knockoffs in matching Catholic schoolgirl outfits with short skirts and chunky-heeled loafers.

The more traditionally fashionable didn't stay away, either. Women in stylish denim clutched Prada bags, and 20-something men wore Polo button-downs.

Cordish emphasizes the variety of entertainment, which helps explain the mix of people.

Havana Club, on the Water Street side, has an older and well-dressed crowd. As patrons smoked, couples taking meringue lessons swiveled their hips and twirled about on the dance floor.

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