By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun
5:10 PM EDT, October 17, 2011
The Station North Arts and Entertainment District will spend a federal grant to encourage commuters leaving downtown after work, as well as those arriving at Penn Station, to stop and stay a while.
"Final Fridays" — a program of events to be held the last Friday of each month — will feature entertainment and will be funded with part of a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
"The goal is to get all the people who often pass through Station North on their way to have a reason to stop here after work on Friday," said Ben Stone, executive director of the district, which includes parts of the Charles North, Barclay and Greenmount West neighborhoods.
Most of the shows at the area's theaters and music venues start between 9 and 11 p.m., Stone said, explaining that Final Fridays' goal was to keep people in the area until those shows began.
"There's a gap, and this is an attempt to fill that gap," said Stone, who added that the Final Fridays events would continue for a year.
Also, the first 150 people who arrive at Final Fridays will receive a "Sta-Note" — a $2 gift certificate that more than 10 area businesses have agreed to accept during Final Fridays.
Early birds will be able to redeem them for $2 off a book at Cyclops or $2 off coffee or food at the Station North Arts Cafe. They could also lower the cost of cover charges at Single Carrot Theater or the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.
Participating businesses will be reimbursed using grant money, Stone said.
The event will kick off on Oct. 28 with a free performance by the band David Wax Museum, as well as acts by local musicians.
Final Fridays programming will move indoors from November to February, with plans to resume outdoor events in March, Stone said. Organizers hope to alternate between venues in Charles North and Greenmount West, he said.
For Halloween, West Trenton Street — an alley that connects Charles and Maryland streets just south of North Avenue — will be transformed into an "urban forest," Stone said, adding that Halloween costumes and pumpkins would also be for sale.
He said that given the district's mix of restaurants, theaters and performance spaces, "one could easily [arrive] at 5 [p.m.] and stay until 4 in the morning and not have much downtime."
The federal grant, intended to support public-private partnerships that promote the arts while improving neighborhoods physically and economically, requires dollar-for-dollar matching.
Stone, however, said he wanted to raise a half-million dollars through both donations of cash and services. He also hopes the programming will continue with local contributions after the one-year federal grant is exhausted.
The director also wants to lure an older, more diverse crowd.
"Since there is art for sale in so many galleries, the larger the range of people, the better it is around here," Stone said.
The nonprofit also seeks to build an audience for artists and performers based in the district. "The most sustainable way is to get people interested in what [the local artists are] doing," Stone said.
Fear of crime may have been a deterrent for potential visitors. But Stone and business owners said police report that violent crime in the area has been low.
"Very often when you're telling people they're going to an event on North Avenue, they gasp," said Peter M. Merles, administrator of the Midtown Community Benefits District, whose boundaries encompass much of Station North.
"But once they get there and see the changes that have taken place [within the arts district], they are amazed," he said.
Station North Arts Cafe Gallery co-owner Kevin Brown, who opened his business nearly five years ago in a block that was 80 percent vacant, described the district as "pockets of poverty and islands of excellence" but said "it needs to be seamless throughout."
While the block is now 100 percent occupied, he said, "there are still some very challenged areas" 10 years after the district's establishment.
But, he added, "I don't think we've hit our stride yet."
He plans to keep the cafe, which usually serves only breakfast and lunch, open until 9 p.m. during the Final Fridays events.
"Final Fridays will give us the opportunity to stretch our wings a little bit and see if people will stay on if we stay open longer," he said.
Steve Carson, who owns Bohemian Coffee House on North Charles Street, said the Final Fridays events would be a great opportunity to support local artists, who he said don't usually get paid to perform, and to attract performers who normally wouldn't come to the area — "which means better music," he said.
He's owned the coffee house since September. "It's been fun," Carson said. "It kind of puts you in the loop."
But Carson thinks that perceptions of the area remain a problem, though he says he feels safer in the Station North district than in other city neighborhoods.
"I think it's getting better, but it still has a stigma," Carson said.
Andy Rubin, owner of Cyclops, a bookstore, art gallery and music venue on West North Avenue, said that the neighborhood has undergone a "naturally steady progression" and that First Fridays would help.
"It's an ongoing mission," he said. "We've got to change people's perspectives about the neighborhood."
Back at the Bohemian Coffee House, Charles Village resident Will Miller, 29, who was reading during a Sunday jazz lunch, said he had mixed feelings about efforts to talk up the district.
Gentrification is "inevitable in a way, but it's not necessarily desirable," he said.
Dan Price, 23, of Cockeysville, thought the Final Fridays events, would attract visitors if well publicized. But he admitted he wasn't entirely comfortable with the neighborhood.
"Sometimes I do feel a little uneasy parking around here, just maybe a little uptight about people breaking into my car," Price said.
Bill Hardy, a teacher who was grading papers while his 13-year-old daughter attended a movie at the nearby Charles Theater, said the initiative "certainly can't hurt."
Hardy said the district was well situated to bring in visitors, given the popularity of the First Thursdays events in Mount Vernon and the proximity of Charles Village to Station North. "It could draw from both," he said.
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