Could Catonsville become an arts and entertainment district? The idea is under study

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As Catonsville explores the possibility of establishing an Arts and Entertainment District — a cluster of ventures designed to attract artists and businesses by providing economic incentives — other districts across the state are undergoing the challenges and benefits that come with revitalization.

Since 2001, the Maryland State Arts Council has awarded up to six arts district designations every year. A county is limited to one per year.

Three of Maryland's 24 districts are in Baltimore City, while Baltimore County is one of seven in the state without a formal district.

Supporters say the districts can provide an economic boost, attracting tourists and a flourishing cultural atmosphere. An economic impact study found that in fiscal 2014, 22 districts supported 6,000 new jobs that paid $199 million in wages.

The Baltimore County Arts Guild, which emerged about four years ago, created an arts and entertainment council after attending a conference of all the state district leaders last year.

Seeing what other districts were experiencing opened the group's eyes to potential in Baltimore County, with Catonsville sitting atop the list of three other potential sites: Dundalk, Pikesville and near Towson.

"The mind explodes with the exciting things you could do," said Marilyn Maitland, arts guild president.

A district designation creates incentives for developers or landowners to create arts and entertainment spaces by providing a property tax credit on arts-related space, as well as income tax breaks on artistic work or performances. A third incentive exemption from the admissions and amusement tax for qualifying artists.

While those incentives bring in new artistic populations and workspace, successful districts typically emerge from areas with an existing base of artists and "anchor spots," or businesses sitting at the metaphorical center of the district to drive traffic, according to Steven Skerritt-Davis, the state arts council's Arts and Entertainment Districts program director.

In Catonsville, Maitland said, that would include sites like the Lurman Woodland Theatre, the annual arts and crafts festival, affordable housing for the artists or the guild's nine art galleries at its home on Maiden Choice Lane in nearby Arbutus.

"Catonsville just sort of happens to have a whole lot of the required components," Maitland said.

An arts district would fall in line with the county's push to attract tourism, with the opening of the Guinness brewery near Relay in southwest Baltimore County slated for this fall. The pub is expected to attract visitors from throughout the region and enhance Arbutus, Halethorpe and Catonsville area businesses.

"We'll be reaching out to those folks, just to get them to be aware of what we're doing," Maitland said, "and ultimately maybe partner with us as we develop the area."

Catonsville is already known as "Music City," Maitland said, giving it the ideal image to build on. She envisions the newly vacant elementary school as an ideal spot for a central arts center, and could see multiple venues and programs including galleries, poetry readings, live music and more settling on Frederick Road and beyond.

A variety of options throughout the city means people would travel for the art, or those walking by could spontaneously pop in to venues they find interesting, she said.

"The mind is boundless when you start to think about what it could be," she said.

Catonsville is in the preliminary stages of planning, Maitland said, and the guild doesn't plan to send a formal application until 2018.

Pamela Dunne, senior program director at state arts council, said the process can take one to two years, but can be quicker if an area is ready for the designation, or has the anchor spots and artist community in place. Sometimes the long application process helps an area reflect on what kind of arts district it wants to be, she added, and what it might be lacking.

The pace of change

It took the Gateway Arts District in Prince George's County almost 20 years to build and market its current operation. The district spans four municipalities — Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, Brentwood and North Brentwood — and two miles with anchor businesses such as Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and performing arts venue, and Joe's Movement Emporium, an artistic hub focused on education and programming.

Maitland said she visited multiple other districts, including in Annapolis and Chestertown, and learned the importance of involving the community in the process. The Gateway Arts District wasn't one of them, but it is the state's geographically largest district — all four municipalities have a combined population close to Catonsville's.

Alan Binstock, a sculptor who works in a Mount Rainier studio near the district's Route 1 corridor, said the economic boost to the area has come at a "moderate pace," but the cultural impact has been widespread.

Arts districts are meant to fill voids in economically underdeveloped areas, Binstock said, and artists have a knack for utilizing underused spaces that seem exclusively commercial.

"You don't see Park Avenue in Manhattan worrying about an artists' community," he said. "So usually the development of an artists' community is because an area needs developing in many other ways, too."

Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Hyattsville Community Development Corporation, is responsible for administrative work in the district. To him, the purpose of an arts district is to embed artistic culture and education in a community for the long term. The district already emerged from an area that had offered affordable housing, meaning artists had flocked there and the culture provided a foundation for growth.

"In our case, it's not a look, it's a presence," he said.

The Highlandtown Arts and Entertainment District is one of three in Baltimore City, joining Station North and Bromo Town. Designated in 2003, the district is a typical urban neighborhood anchored by galleries, studios and artist homes as well as a commercial strip, according to district committee chair Daniel Schiavone.

The idea of an arts and entertainment district can be misunderstood, Schiavone said, because, aside from the tax incentives, nothing specific in the legislation really sets the area apart from its neighboring zones.

"It's really up to the people in the arts district to take advantage of the designation," he said, which involves supporting and growing an already-existing artist community.

Although Laurel is not a state-designated arts district, a group of residents formed DC|LA Arts, LLC to partner local businesses with artists in the community and form mutually beneficial relationships.

The group arose after the Laurel Arts District Committee disbanded about a year ago. That group had evolved from the Laurel Arts District Exploratory Committee, which formed after the city designated an area near Route 1 and the Patuxent River its Arts and Entertainment District in 2011.

Olive on Main, a Mediterranean restaurant on Main Street, is a "flagship" spot for local artists, according to DC|LA Arts business and artist liaison Trina Kvale. It regularly features local artists' paintings and photographs, and hosts monthly "Meet the Artist" happy hours.

"It lets people know you're more than just a restaurant," the owner, Nadol Hishmeh, said. "You're more part of the community, you do have more care and say in what goes on around here."

Kvale, a pastel artist, has her work featured in the restaurant until the end of July. The spotlight on local artists helps the community build its identity, she said, and is unlikely anything she's seen before in Laurel.

But for the director of the Venus Theatre, Deb Randall, the lack of a state designation stems from missing anchor institutions.

"The city just kind of called itself an arts district, but it wasn't state sanctioned," she said. "There are really specific things to check off the list for that."

Randall, the former chair of the Laurel Arts District Exploratory Committee, encouraged those spearheading the mission in Baltimore County to follow those state regulations closely, but questioned the need for such a designation in Catonsville.

"It would depend on what the anchor would be, what the interest is," she said.

County spokeswoman Fronda Cohen emphasized its commitment to state guidelines, saying she felt the most successful districts take the criteria to heart and understand that growing the community and seeing measurable economic impact is a long process.

The county has not been presented with a formal proposal yet, she said, but one would be necessary to move forward.

"It's not something where you can just say, 'Oh, wouldn't this be cool, to have an Arts and Entertainment District here. Let's put one here,'" she said. "There is a danger in that."

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