Liberty Road rolls through residential neighborhoods in northwest Baltimore County as a miles-long stretch of fast-food spots, auto supply places, rundown store facades and many traffic lights.
To one county executive candidate, this scene has the makings of a state-sanctioned arts and entertainment district, and maybe even an outdoor performance venue.
"I'd think it would be tremendous along the Liberty Road corridor," said Joseph Bartenfelder, a County Council member and contender for the Democratic nomination. He tossed out the notion at a candidates forum Wednesday night in Randallstown.
His opponent later said the idea came out of nowhere, but Bartenfelder said it's something he's been talking about for a while with local residents — though not with his fellow council members. He also mentioned the idea at a previous candidates forum in Towson.
Bartenfelder said he first heard the idea when a woman from the Randallstown area mentioned it to him late last year.
The county now has no such districts, which can provide state tax incentives for artists and developers.
Bartenfelder, a 16-year councilman, farmer and former state delegate, raised the point during the forum in response to a question about blight along Liberty Road. He told the gathering of about 70 people at the Randallstown Community Center that "there has to be an attraction, a reason people want to go to Liberty Road."
In an interview Thursday, Bartenfelder said he's never discussed the idea with members of the council, but it's based on his own observation and what he's heard from people around the county.
"The demand is there for it," he said. "We could have an outdoor-type amphitheater in connection with that."
His Democratic opponent, Kevin Kamenetz, said he never heard the notion discussed until Bartenfelder raised it Wednesday night. Kamenetz, also a County Council member, told the group that he was not sure what to make of it.
"I don't know what an arts district means," Kamenetz said, at the only point during the 90-minute forum when a candidate directly addressed a remark made by another. "Is that a museum?"
On Thursday, he said the Liberty Road area is a "residential community" and questioned how Bartenfelder's suggestion addressed the question of improving it.
"I'm not clear how that was meeting the needs of Liberty Road, other than making a passing gesture," Kamenetz said. "Let's build on the strength we have there and not pretend it's something different."
He considers the area of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore, near the Maryland Institute College of Art, to be a better venue for such a project.
The Maryland State Arts Council has designated 18 arts and entertainment districts since the program began in 2001. The districts dot the state map from Allegany County to the Eastern Shore, and have been developed in small towns and big cities. They've been successful in areas as diverse as Silver Spring and Cumberland.
What the districts have in common, said Arts Council Executive Director Theresa Colvin, is that they build on existing cultural resources. Those could be arts organizations, concentrations of working artists, performance spaces or combinations of these elements. The districts cannot be created just anywhere.
"It has to be more organic," said Colvin. "There needs to be a threshold level of arts and entertainment activity going on. … There needs to be a 'there' there."
Kirby Fowler, who worked on the nascent Station North project for then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, said "the raw materials were there," and that helped the application. "I think it would be challenging to impose an arts district in an area" without existing arts activity.
Fowler now heads the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Colvin said Baltimore County has "significant arts organizations," but she did not comment about Bartenfelder's suggestion. That would be for the Arts Council to decide, if it ever were asked to consider a formal application for the district designation.
Bartenfelder said he'd like to pursue such a project, but he said the initiative would have to come from the county executive. That could be Bartenfelder if he wins the election.
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