For more than a year, Marylanders stayed home, attending everything from weddings and corporate conferences to concerts, trivia nights and comedy shows all from their couches and kitchens.
Now, with the worst of the coronavirus pandemic seemingly receding due to widespread vaccination, developers, city officials and business owners in South Baltimore hope to absorb some of the pent-up demand for outings, leisure and travel with a new entertainment district between M&T Bank Stadium and Horseshoe Casino Baltimore.
The four-block, mostly industrial stretch, known as the Warner Street corridor, could draw hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, officials said. It also might re-energize the casino, where revenue is off by about a third since 2016, amid slowing business and in the wake of the pandemic.
Plans for the district include a 4,000-seat concert hall called The Paramount and the addition of a Topgolf driving range. At the same time, a new, outdoor iteration of Hammerjacks, the storied Baltimore nightclub and concert hall, will open nearby as a tailgating and events venue as early as this fall.
The entertainment district may feature additional retail and dining options and a hotel once completed, those affiliated with the project said.
“We started looking at the vacant and underutilized industrial properties and said, ‘What can they be, and how can we make this a better corridor?’ said Kim Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s development arm. “What can we do to create a better experience?”
Horseshoe Casino’s ownership group, composed of Caesars Entertainment, Rock Gaming (now known as JACK Entertainment) and Baltimore development firm Caves Valley Partners has been leading the vision for the district, ushering in amenities that could complement the casino and stadium.
The casino’s revenue has trended down since 2016, when it reported nearly $160 million in revenue in the first six months of the year. That fell to about $125 million in 2019 and $104 million this year, though the pandemic no doubt affected the return of its business.
Horseshoe remains Maryland’s third-largest casino behind MGM National Harbor near Washington and Live! Casino in Hanover. The more than $920 million industry in Maryland stands to grow even bigger as the state begins legalizing online and in-person sports gambling.
Horseshoe has underperformed relative to Maryland’s other casinos, said James Karmel, a history professor at Harford Community College and the author of “Gambling on the American Dream: Atlantic City and the Casino Era.”
Though the coronavirus may have played a role in its current revenue picture, the lack of surrounding mixed-use development could be contributing, Karmel said. He said cities such as Las Vegas tend to thrive because of a range of amenities offered at once to visitors.
“It’s a little distant from the Inner Harbor, and most suburban Marylanders wouldn’t consider walking from the Inner Harbor to where Horseshoe is,“ Karmel said.
The South Baltimore entertainment district could inspire a mix of leisure and business travel, officials said, with Topgolf performing well nationally as a corporate events facility, Paramount drawing concertgoers and the football stadium drawing tens of thousands of fans each year when at capacity.
“We’re going to have a lot of different options for folks,” said Randy Conroy, senior vice president and general manger of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, who spoke on behalf of the development group in an interview. “These types of things we’re doing will drive more people to Baltimore, provide more options for the people who live here and more reasons for people to come here.”
Construction on the Topgolf facility, announced three years ago, began in May. The company’s centers function as all-in-one driving ranges and activities hubs — with hitting bays, full-service restaurants and bars — and include space for social and corporate events. The Baltimore site is expected to employ some 500 people.
Topgolf bills itself as one of the world’s fastest-growing sports and entertainment companies — with 69 locations around the world, including two others in Maryland — drawing some 20 million visitors annually, the company said in May. Its Baltimore facility will occupy part of a parcel once home to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), which moved to Cherry Hill in South Baltimore.
The casino ownership group is developing The Paramount nearby. It will be an offshoot of a concert venue of the same name on New York’s Long Island, which has a lineup this summer that includes comedians Jim Breuer and Kevin James and musical acts such as The Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and Limp Bizkit.
Economists, hospitality experts and Baltimore City officials said the developers are betting — safely — on a return to the in-person consumer spending patterns that marked prepandemic life.
The public health crisis may have squashed arts and entertainment spending temporarily, they said, but a full recovery is anticipated within at least a few years.
“The appetite for such things has never been greater,” said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore-based economist and CEO of the Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting firm. “The goal is to build up significant synergies: Watch the Ravens, do some gambling, do Topgolf, do fine dining, and then plan your next trip to Baltimore.
“A critical mass is forming. There are now enough things to see and do that it’s becoming a place that is more appealing for an overnight stay.”
The city’s hotel tax revenue, a major component of state and city budgets, fell to precipitously low levels in 2020 and much of 2021, resulting in the loss of more than 10,000 jobs, said Amy Rohrer, president and CEO of the Maryland Hotel Lodging Association. Business travel and in-person conventions account for much of the revenue, she added, and may not rebound to previous levels, or at least not until 2024 at the earliest.
The BDC has a stake in Horseshoe’s success, not only because it attracts overnight visitors and generates taxes, but also because a portion of the revenue of Maryland casinos goes to help a casino’s neighboring communities.
To make to area more attractive for visitors, the BDC is leading an infrastructural overhaul of the corridor, which includes relocating power lines underground, creating bike and walking trails and making improvements to the streetscape.
The BDC’s Clark, a Baltimore Ravens fan, said she leaned on her experiences visiting other football stadium districts across the country. In cities such as Cincinnati and New Orleans, people can walk around, shop, eat and drink before and after each game within a tightly controlled radius.
“What attracts fans and keeps them around? Quite frankly, what is making those cities money?” Clark said. “The entertainment sector is a job employment sector, so that’s where we look at it from economic point of view. We’re creating employment opportunities and bringing new taxes to the city.”
Some residents and business owners in the area said they looked forward to the corridor’s development and the increased visitor and pedestrian traffic it could inspire.
“We think it can really improve the area. We think they’re going to make it an entertainment district that we’re happy to be a part of,” said Judy Neff, owner and brewer of the nearby Checkerspot Brewing Co., adding that the construction and pedestrian improvements could make the area more inviting.
Bob Merbler, a Baltimore real estate agent and former Federal Hill Neighborhood Association board member, said the development would revitalize what currently functions as a “no man’s land,” devoid of much commercial investment.
“Anything that brings people in and keeps people there is terrific,” he said.
But others said the development could place undue burdens on the local business ecosystem in neighboring areas.
Kim Lane, director of Pigtown Main Street, said it can be challenging for small business owners to compete with established chains and big-name brands.
“It’s bittersweet because it can bring regional visitors into the area, but that’s only going to work if partners are there that will promote local businesses that are already here,” Lane said. “We’re in walking distance, but if there isn’t promotion or good pedestrian walkways or gateways for cars, is it going to drain our local businesses?”
Diante Edwards, vice president of Citizens of Pigtown, said the entertainment district did not seem to have the priorities of Baltimore residents at the forefront.
“The businesses are geared more toward tourists and county residents than people around here,” Edwards said. “But it’s still positive for the neighborhood because it’ll bring jobs in, people will be more attracted to Pigtown, I think, and hop from Warner Street to visit our local businesses here.”
And City Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents parts of Carroll-Camden, Pigtown, and Westport, said the corridor could be a boon for the area and spur post-pandemic activity, so long as it remains physically and economically accessible.
“I’m in support of any organization who wants to be a true partner to the surrounding communities, who brings more jobs to the community, provided they’re also being good neighbors,” said Porter, a Democrat, in an email. “I do hope, however, that we can include other businesses in this space — small, local, minority- and women-owned businesses.”
Clark said the BDC has worked to maintain commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion since Horseshoe Casino landed in South Baltimore. She said that commitment has not changed.
“It’s something we keep pressing,” Clark said. “If we don’t create something for everyone, for the whole community, then we have failed.”
Horseshoe Casino’s Conroy said Topgolf and The Paramount could open by the end of next year, and additional amenities could stake claims on other plots of the corridor by the end of this year.
A built-out corridor could create as many as 1,000 jobs, reflecting the developers’ commitment to city residents, he said.
“We’re going to play our part in the economic growth of Baltimore,” he said. “If we’re successful in early venues, that could create more development opportunities around us, and from an economic development perspective, more is better.”