Proposal calls for west side arts district

City seeking NEA grant to develop plans

  • The arts district proposal would seek to revitalize the area that includes the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home of the Hippodrome Theater.
The arts district proposal would seek to revitalize the area… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
April 07, 2010|By Edward Gunts | Baltimore Sun reporter

Baltimore's west side would become the city's third arts and entertainment district under a proposal endorsed by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake for making the area more of a cultural hub.

The new district would join state-designated arts districts in the Station North and Highlandtown areas as magnets for galleries, theaters, studios and other arts-related activities and investment. Such a designation also would make certain business and property owners eligible for tax breaks.

The idea for a west-side arts district has been around since former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration posted signs renaming Howard Street the "Avenue of the Arts," and was raised again when Martin O'Malley served as mayor. It has been given new life under the administration of Rawlings-Blake, who wants to revitalize that area, which includes the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, home of the Hippodrome Theatre, and the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower.

City leaders are seeking a $250,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help develop plans for the proposed west-side arts district, including boundaries and eligibility requirements for participation, and to determine how the new district could be connected to the existing arts districts.

"We recognize the value of arts districts in creating viable, sustainable communities," Rawlings-Blake wrote in a letter to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman.

City leaders contend that Baltimore is just the right size and location to show how arts districts can help attract creative residents, improve the quality of life and revitalize urban areas with new businesses and jobs.

Baltimore's "population, diversity, density and physical size make it an ideal incubator and test ground for new ideas about the intersection of art and community in the 21st century," city officials stated in their application to the NEA. "Its affordability, size and location -- only 38 miles from Washington, D. C., and within striking distance of the entire Northeast corridor -- position it to serve as home to a highly educated, creative and engaged population."

Some concerns have been raised about a new arts district drawing from -- and possibly hampering -- existing arts districts. And one member of the Westside Project Area Committee, a citizens group that monitors development in the area, brought up another concern.

Judy Boulmetis, a co-owner of the hat shop Hippodrome Hatters, said she wasn't particularly keen on attracting a high concentration of artists to the area because they might not buy much from stores such as hers.

"They don't have money," she said. "I need money. I'm sorry. I'm a merchant."

But leaders of Baltimore arts organizations, including Baltimore Museum of Art Director Doreen Bolger and Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance Executive Director J. Buck Jabaily, are backing the proposed new district.

"I wholly support there being a west-side arts district," said Jabaily, who added that one of the reasons he moved to Baltimore was the Station North arts district. "So much with art is: More is more."

Maryland has 18 state-sanctioned arts and entertainment districts, including parts of Cumberland, Frederick, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Salisbury and Berlin, according to the Maryland State Arts Council.

The designation has provided state income tax breaks for qualified artists working and living in the area and 10-year tax breaks for owners of commercial buildings renovated for arts-related uses.

Baltimore's first arts district, the Station North area, was created in 2001 and covers about 100 acres north of Penn Station. The city's second arts district, in Highlandtown and Patterson Park, was established in 2003 and covers 358 acres on both sides of Eastern Avenue.

If funded, the planning process for a west-side arts district would start in July and take a year to complete, which means a formal plan could be ready for state consideration by the second half of 2011.

Any new district would need to be sanctioned by the arts council and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

One of the main goals of the planning process would be to set the boundaries of the west-side arts district. "That's always been the issue: Who's in and who's out," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the quasi public agency that produces the annual Artscape festival and is leading the effort to create the new district.

Gilmore indicated that a starting point would be property on either side of Howard Street, including landmarks such as the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center and the former Town Theatre on Fayette Street, which is slated to become a new home for the Everyman Theatre.

The boundaries also could be drawn to include the area around Hollins Market, known as "Sowebo," parts of Poppleton and other neighborhoods west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Gilmore said.

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