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Baltimore's Pennsylvania Avenue may be formally designated as a 'Black Arts and Entertainment District'

The Royal Theater on Baltimore's Pennsylvania Ave. was home to legendary performers such as Cab Calloway and Redd Foxx.
The Royal Theater on Baltimore's Pennsylvania Ave. was home to legendary performers such as Cab Calloway and Redd Foxx.(I. Henry Phillips Sr. / HANDOUT)

The Baltimore City Council was expected to take up a resolution Monday that would designate West Baltimore's historic Pennsylvania Avenue as a Black Arts and Entertainment District.

A formal designation by the city “is a critical piece” of the application process that would enable the historic strip to be eligible for state-level tax incentives and other funding for planned revitalization efforts, Leon Pinkett, the resolution’s co-sponsor, said.

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“This designation is part of a broader strategy for the revitalization of this area that we believe is a gateway to West Baltimore,” he said. “We see it as an opportunity that the city should be invested in and that would spur economic development.”

While the city houses other arts and entertainment districts — including at Station North, Highlandtown and Bromo Tower — Pennsylvania Avenue would be the only one with a focus on black arts and entertainment, Pinkett said. He said the strip’s historical markers make it unparalleled in caliber to other arts and entertainment districts in the nation. Theaters such as the Royal showcased legendary performers such as Cab Calloway and Redd Foxx, among others.

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While some groups and planning coalitions have already formed to discuss their visions and proposals for the area and surrounding community, Pinkett added that it might take an extended timeframe to “revitalize it up to the level we all hope it will be.” He said the overall strategy includes enhancing the streetscape, implementing general facade improvements, installing more lighting as well as several other rebranding efforts.

Pinkett said the project would require a mix of public and private investment, adding that the area also falls within an “Opportunity Zone,” state-sanctioned regions in the state in which investors can defer or avoid taxes on capital gains if they put the profits into a fund and invest.

“There are a lot of funds that have already been identified, but we want to make sure we have the vision in place to access those funds,” he said. “The critical piece is finding out what the balance would be of public investment. We have to make investments to show the market that it’s important.”

Pinkett said he expects the resolution to pass, as his colleagues recognize the significance of revitalizing Pennsylvania Avenue and preserving its rich historic background.

Councilman Eric Costello, the resolution’s co-sponsor, was not immediately available for comment. Pinkett said he and Costello share Pennsylvania Avenue within their legislative boundaries and thus jointly prioritize it.

“In certain communities in the city you already have an anchor institution simply because the anchor is present. In West Baltimore, you don’t have that ready anchor,” he said. “Why can’t Pennsylvania Avenue be what Beale Street is to Memphis?”

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