New projects suggest sports and entertainment zone is taking root

After almost not opening, a new bar near the casino points the way a new entertainment zone.

Jimmy Trujillo had two chances to walk away from Warner Street.

First, the Washington investors who drafted the nightclub consultant and designer to find a site for a club near the new Horseshoe Casino Baltimore backed out. Then, last December, the city put off his bid for an entertainment license.

The 50-year-old Sparks businessman decided the location — blocks from the casino and M&T Bank Stadium — was too good to give up. In May, he opened Game, a sports bar at 1400 Warner St., filling what would have been a dance floor with ping pong tables and other games.

And last week the city's zoning board finally approved the entertainment license for Game, giving Trujillo the go-ahead to host DJs and live acts at the 750-person bar.

Trujillo's persistence shows the much-discussed sports and entertainment district south of the city's stadiums may be starting to bud, despite initial hesitance by the city to approve some plans.

In addition to Game, the proposed Hammerjacks club and concert venue is ready to move forward, said Kevin Butler of the Hammerjacks Entertainment Group. The local group hopes to start construction in the next several months on the $5 million-plus venue capable of accommodating 5,000 or so people, possibly opening by the end of next year.

He declined to disclose the precise location but said an official announcement would come in the next several weeks.

"It's time and I think the political whims have changed to the point where they realize it," he said.

A sports and entertainment district with restaurants, hotels and shopping along Russell and Warner streets is one of the priorities identified in the draft of the city's new South Baltimore Gateway Master Plan, which lays out a vision for how to spend the casino revenue set aside for certain nearby neighborhoods. It is slated to be presented to the Planning Commission for adoption in coming weeks.

The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm, is also crafting a "vision plan" focused on Warner Street, an agency spokeswoman confirmed. She declined to comment further.

The city has long supported the idea of an entertainment zone close to the casino and stadiums, but wanted to have a guide in place so that new projects came together in a cohesive, "world-class" way, planning director Thomas J. Stosur said.

"We wanted to make sure that there was some thought put into the type of uses that would go there so that that type of initiative could really reflect a world-class district and not just kind of a handful of music venues or nightclubs tossed together," he said.

The territory addressed in the 20-year South Baltimore Gateway Master Plan ranges from Cherry Hill and Carroll Park to Westport and Port Covington, where Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank is working on a new Under Armour campus and other development ideas.

In addition to an entertainment district, the 192-page report calls for new MARC train and light rail stops; expanded water taxi service and trails along the Middle Branch park; redevelopment of city and housing authority sites; and better public services via added public safety cameras, cleanup crews and improvements to local fire stations.

Richard Parker, president of the Citizens of Pigtown and the Southwest Partnership, said community groups support the Game and Hammerjacks plans and do not oppose an entertainment district.

But they are worried that those plans will overshadow residents' priorities for improved public safety and sanitation services in neighborhoods when officials decide how to distribute the casino funds.

"The issue with it is that residents constantly have this feeling that developers have preference over residents," he said. "You've got two stadiums, you've got the casino, now Game is there — all great things that we love and welcome — but true growth means that it's got to extend beyond there."

The Gateway plan makes quality-of-life improvements a priority, but Trujillo's investment is a sign that larger projects are possible, Stosur said.

"We'll be working to help strike that balance, making sure we're channeling funds to basic neighborhood services and quality of life but at the same time not losing track of the really big opportunities we see out there that can be game-changers for the city," he said.

Sites likely to be targeted for redevelopment in the entertainment district include at least two of the city-owned properties in the area: a parking lot on Warner Street as well as the 301 Stockholm St. property currently leased to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter Inc.

BARCS executive director Jennifer Brause said the animal shelter, which cares for about 12,000 animals each year, needs a bigger, more up-to-date space and is interested in moving.

Though developers have expressed interest in that site through the years, a new place is likely to cost about $18 million — more than BARCS can come up with quickly.

"They definitely have interest in doing something on this property, but as far as finding a new location and really coming up with a solid plan for funding it, that's still out for discussion," Brause said.

City Councilman Edward Reisinger said he initially opposed Trujillo's request for the entertainment license, but came round after the bar opened and he saw how it operated. (Among other things, the capacity is smaller than originally planned.)

Trujillo, who previously worked on hundreds of club openings around the country, including the former Baja Beach Club in Baltimore, said he has no intention of replacing the games in the bar's back room with bottle service or a sweaty dance floor, even with the entertainment license. Game will book Top 40 DJs and cover bands, plus the occasional emerging act, to complement the scene, Trujillo said, without alienating its developing customer base of sports fans.

Reisinger said he's excited to see the area finally evolving and also supports the BDC plan, which calls for mixed-use projects consistent with an entertainment zone.

"I think that area right there is going to have an identity," Reisinger said. "You're going to see it's going to sparkle."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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