Lines drawn in arts district row

Annapolis residents who backed the entertainment area cry foul at being left out of it

July 20, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

Joseph "Marty" Descoteaux and his fianc?e, Jene Barsh, were among the first to embrace the idea of an arts and entertainment district in Annapolis.

Envisioning renting units in their home to artists and creating space for performances or for art to be sold, they spoke out at city council meetings and traversed their Germantown-Homewood neighborhood, getting 40 people to sign a petition in support of establishing the arts district.The couple thought victory was near when the city and county councils this spring endorsed joining the state-administered program, which offers tax credits to developers who create combination living and working space for artists; tax credits on the work they sell; and an exemption for the admissions and amusement tax.

But state officials, after touring the stretch of West Street, home to car dealerships, a Gold's Gym and a library, decided it would not work as an arts destination. At their urging, the city revised the district's boundaries to exclude the area, and it was approved in May.

Now the two are among a number of residents who are aggressively speaking out about what they say was unfairness in the arts and entertainment district selection process.

"We are the reasons why it ever got passed," Barsh said in an interview. "Because of our petitions and us speaking out. We just don't feel it's right. ... We went out there and really fought for it and we don't get anything out of it."

In an e-mail to state officials on July 10, one resident, Paul Lebow, called the process of changing the district's boundaries after it passed the councils "a mockery" of the democratic process.

Elizabeth M. Craven, deputy director of the Maryland State Arts Council, said the city has the ability to modify the boundaries, which it did in this case, because the area in question lacked resources like restaurants, theaters and other facilities that would encourage development.

"Traditionally, it is an economic development tool to encourage neighborhood revitalization," Craven said. "There has to be some threshold criteria. It can't be a complete vacant area. To encourage additional clustering, you're not supposed to be creating something that never existed."

Craven added that municipalities can later apply for expansions of their arts and entertainment districts.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer in January announced plans to apply to the Maryland State Arts Council, an arm of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development that oversees 18 districts, imagining 100 acres along outer West Street from Monticello Avenue to Chinquapin Round Road. Moyer said the district would be anchored by Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts and would help revitalize outer West Street, a stretch along one of the city's main drags that is less frequented by pedestrians and tourists.

After receiving an onslaught of criticism from some residents of Germantown-Homewood, who argued the arts and entertainment district would make their neighborhood a noisy mecca for restaurants and nightclubs requesting 2 a.m. liquor licenses, the boundaries changed to decrease the area in the neighborhood included in the district.

It was revised three times to a final incarnation that would stretch along West Street near the library to Clay Street.

Some residents who complained said the district was being foisted upon them without enough examination of the ramifications and sought to postpone the application for a year. But the city was racing to meet this spring's deadline for the state program, because only one jurisdiction from a county can apply each year, and Brooklyn Park plans to submit an application next year.

Michael F. Miron, the city's economic development director, said the city had little choice in excluding the outer part of West Street.

"The important thing is we did get the designation. We were going to get flat turned down if we didn't bend on this thing," he said. "There wasn't even time to go back to the council. We were kind of under the gun to make a decision."

Descoteaux aired his complaints at last week's council meeting. Alderwomen Sheila M. Finlayson and Classie Gillis Hoyle and Alderman Samuel E. Shropshire were sympathetic, saying they planned to write a letter to state officials questioning why part of West Street was cut out.

The mayor fired back.

"It is true that you were most vocal and most interested," Moyer said to Descoteaux. "But it was their decision as to what they would approve, not ours. You're just fundamentally wrong to say you're being cut out of the process in some back-room deal."

Still, the disappointed neighbors are vowing to get real answers from city and state officials. John Holt, co-owner of the Annapolitan Bed and Breakfast with his wife, said they wanted to start a dance studio on their property, hoping to take advantage of the tax abatements offered by the district.

"This is a real travesty of the democratic process," Holt said. "It really stinks the way it came down."

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