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In wake of Baltimore unrest, businesses, events fret but hope for crowds in coming days

Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Dietz doesn't know what to expect this weekend. But like businesses all over Baltimore, weary and in some cases financially hurting after a week of civic unrest and 10 p.m. curfews, he's hopeful that people are ready to come back into the city and enjoy themselves.

Hopeful, but more than a little apprehensive. The percentage of advance ticket sales for the festival, which runs through Sunday in the Station North Arts District and environs, was down "in the low double digits" as of Monday, he said. That dip continuing would put a serious strain on the festival's finances.

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"Those are big numbers," Dietz said. "We'd have to scramble."

Dietz's fears are hardly unique, as businesses and event organizers hope the city will rebound and the crowds will return after events of the past two weeks.

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True, some effects of the unrest following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died April 19 from injuries sustained while in police custody, may not be understood fully for months, or even years.

"Superficially, Baltimore is going to snap right back," said Jonathan Murray, a financial adviser at UBS Financial Services in Hunt Valley, "On the surface, everything will appear to be back to normal. But from an economic, revenue and tax perspective, it was a tremendous hit that will only be felt in the next five years."

For many area businesses, however, the hurt has been immediate, the apprehension hard to shake.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said attendance at the symphony's Show House, a major fundraising event the BSO holds annually and which runs through May 17, is down this year and that officials "were feeling the impact."

At the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, big crowds are expected for this weekend's five performances of Tyler Perry in "Madea on the Run," but spokeswoman Nicoletta Macris said the venue "got hurt big-time" when a Steve Winwood concert and three performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had to be postponed last week.

And several schools in surrounding counties have canceled field trips to or proms in the city.

"This was an extraordinary set of circumstances that has not happened — or anything like it — in many, many decades," Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos said Tuesday, "and presumably would not happen again for many, many decades, although no one can foresee the future.I hope that's not the case, that people are fearful of coming to Baltimore. I don't think they should be."

Many business owners are happy to put the best face on things. At the Rusty Scupper on Key Highway, general manager Ed Prutzer said his restaurant's popular Mother's Day brunch, and others like it throughout the city, could be a big help.

"It is perfect timing," he said, "because it gives people a good reason to come downtown. And when they have a great experience, it will encourage them to come down for future downtown visits."

At the Pratt Street Ale House, managing partner Greg Keating said it's "full steam ahead" for Saturday's Real Ale Festival. "We had the opportunity to move it, but we chose not to, because we feel the city is moving on, so we're moving on."

Still, "this week needs a little push," said Gia Blattermann, owner of Little Italy's Cafe Gia.

To that end, and with an eye on the coming weeks and months, several organizations have announced plans aimed at convincing the public it's safe to venture into the city.

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Owners of the LED billboard at 1700 N. Charles St., just north of Penn Station, have offered free advertising for businesses hurt by the curfew that was lifted Sunday after being in force for five nights. A post on Visit Baltimore's website (Baltimore.org) assures that "all major tourist attractions are open, as are the city's restaurants and other businesses" (although it also notes that "police and security forces are maintaining a visible presence").

Mike Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, said that group is working with other agencies to coordinate a sustained marketing effort that will last through the summer.

"We've all been talking about how to best match need with resources," Evitts said. "This is not about a slogan. This is about encouraging people to do what they've been doing — getting out and supporting the city."

Paul Meecham, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's president and CEO, believes the city has turned a corner. He noted that "very few" BSO patrons have asked to exchange their tickets for this weekend's concerts for other dates. "That would suggest that people are ready to come back in and hear some music," he said.

"I think there has been a collective sigh of relief within the city that last week is behind us," Meecham added.

The film festival's Dietz said he's keeping his fingers crossed.

Festival organizers are taking multiple steps to try to entice people to attend, he said. Donors have chipped in an extra $30,000, to spend on advertising and other enticements. In a last-minute addition to the schedule, the four-man writing team responsible for the planned HBO mini-series "America in the King Years" will gather for a panel discussion Friday night. The panel includes producer David Simon ("The Wire"); author Taylor Branch, on whose books the series is based; National Book Award winner James McBride; and essayist and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, a National Magazine Award-winning editor at The Atlantic magazine.

"All the anecdotal stuff is encouraging," said Dietz, noting that none of the more than 100 filmmakers expected to attend the festival have canceled, or even called to express any concern about coming to Baltimore. In fact, he said, several have been in touch to express their support for the festival and the city.

Ticket sales for the festival, which open tonight at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, always pick up as show time approaches, he said. Perhaps people have been waiting to make sure things quieted down and the curfew was lifted before buying their tickets.

"People have been bottled up for a week," he said. "Maybe they'll be anxious to get out."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Wesley Case and Richard Gorelick, BSMG reporter Brandi Bottalico and freelance contributor Liz Atwood contributed to this article.

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