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Welcome to Music City. Will the Catonsville arts district make Baltimore County a tourist attraction?

Metal music notes bolted into the sidewalk frame Catonsville native Justine Stull, who now lives in Mt. Airy, and her daughter Clara Stull, 13 on Frederick Road in Catonsville's business corridor Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Metal music notes bolted into the sidewalk frame Catonsville native Justine Stull, who now lives in Mt. Airy, and her daughter Clara Stull, 13 on Frederick Road in Catonsville's business corridor Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Catonsville is known as “Music City” for its collection of stores selling guitars, mandolins, woodwinds and other instruments. But Baltimore County leaders hope a new state designation will make the town’s main street commercial district really sing.

The western suburb learned last month its downtown will become the first state-designated arts and entertainment district in Baltimore County. The designation brings tax breaks designed to attract artists — and developers.

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Some residents hope it will transform Catonsville into a place where people will come in the afternoon to buy art at a market, check out artists working in their studios, snap a selfie at a mural and then stay into the evening for dinner and a performance at a small venue.

Kirby Spencer, a Catonsville resident and vice president of the Baltimore County Arts Guild, envisions rooftop decks and a cultural arts center in one of Catonsville’s “underutilized properties.”

“I’d love to see music emanating out of businesses like it was Broadway down there,” Spencer said, referring to the heart of Nashville’s nightlife district.

An outside view at Bill's Music Thu., Nov. 14, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
An outside view at Bill's Music Thu., Nov. 14, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Currently, Frederick Road — Catonsville’s main street — has two shopping centers, a few restaurants and a mix of small businesses, including salons. But town fixtures like Friendly’s and Plymouth Wallpaper have closed in recent years. The Plymouth sign still hangs over one of the three vacant buildings on the corner at Bloomsbury Avenue.

“There’s a lot of people working hard to really make it an exciting destination place," said Brian Higgins, general manager of Bill’s Music, where nearly 2,000 guitars line the walls.

While he said Catonsville over the years “kind of needed a jump-start a little bit," Bill’s is a landmark that has thrived for 54 years. Higgins wants musicians to have more places in town where they can collaborate, swap ideas and create.

“We don’t want to become a ghost town out here," Higgins said. "We want to be known as a hotbed of activity.”

The arts and entertainment designation could encourage artists to create and sell their work without paying state income tax and spur property owners and developers to spend money improving existing buildings, also with the help of tax breaks.

Those organizing the effort believe Catonsville can draw art studios, performance venues and more bars and restaurants featuring live music, citing Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis and Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center as examples.

“Significant” investors are already interested, said County Councilman Tom Quirk, though he wouldn’t say who. There’s “a genuine excitement and a genuine energy," he said.

A ‘driving force’ for growth

Activists have been seeking the arts and entertainment designation for Catonsville for two years, after the 2018 death of then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz delayed the first application.

The Baltimore County Arts Guild, a nonprofit that supports and promotes county arts programs and events, in 2017 formed “an arts and entertainment council” with leaders from Towson, Pikesville, and Dundalk to discuss which community should apply, Spencer said. The southwest corner of the county was deemed “the most viable and ready” location, she said.

Pedestrians walk past the closed Plymouth Wallpaper building on Frederick Road in Catonsville's business corridor Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Pedestrians walk past the closed Plymouth Wallpaper building on Frederick Road in Catonsville's business corridor Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Maryland has 28 districts spread throughout Baltimore and 18 counties. A Towson University study found the districts supported $1 billion in state GDP last year, $72 million in state and local tax revenues, and almost 10,000 jobs paying $320 million in wages. The designation is central to both big redevelopment projects, such as downtown Silver Spring, and neighborhood efforts, like those in Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue corridor and Highlandtown.

An official arts district provides various incentives, including: waiving the state’s 10% admissions tax for some businesses; exempting artists who live and work in the district from state income tax; offering low-interest loans for exterior building improvements; and providing property tax credits for owners whose improvements increase a property’s value by at least $100,000 and property tax credits for developers spending at least $10 million to improve existing buildings.

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Catonsville developer Steve Whalen Jr. of Whalen Properties lauded the guild’s “heavy lifting” to put the application together. In his view, the real catalyst was businesses along Frederick Road that wanted to add live music.

An antiquated county law excluded businesses along Frederick Road, and some breweries, from having live music. That restriction was lifted for Catonsville and Arbutus, and Spencer hopes it will expand to other areas going forward.

Quirk said Catonsville was considered first because a lot of the key organizers live in Catonsville and the surrounding area. “The driving force behind” the designation is knowing people will spend money in the county if they attract artists and build more entertainment venues, he said.

Catonsville, after dark

At the Taneytown Deli & Sandwich Shoppe — just a few doors down from Bill’s Music — John Tackett hopes Catonsville will shake its perception as a place that rolls up the sidewalks in the evening after businesses close.

“It’s pretty quiet late at night, but it seems like a nice little town,” said Tackett, who lives in Halethorpe but was taking his lunch break at the deli. He hopes some of the new restaurants he’s heard are coming have plans for live music.

Patrons at State Fare on Frederick Road in Catonsville join in the release event for WhistlePig rye whiskey on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Patrons at State Fare on Frederick Road in Catonsville join in the release event for WhistlePig rye whiskey on a recent Saturday afternoon. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Some of the businesses do stay open, including the State Fare restaurant. Keith Hosley, a Catonsville native and co-owner of State Fare, said he wants to see an all-day spring music festival in the community one day.

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“This is called Music City for a reason. We do our best to have a lot of live music here,” Hosley said. “The next generation of people buying houses in Catonsville all have a lot of energy and they want to go out and enjoy and support the community.”

Larry Zwick, owner of the Peace of Sunshine smoke shop, is worried more restaurants and nightlife will mean less available parking for his customers. His business “has suffered because of it,” he said, and he sees Catonsville as being “a thruway for the freeways” years from now because "there’s absolutely no parking here.”

Whalen, the developer, is optimistic. He said the Frederick Road business district has “moved in the right direction” in the last couple of years. Now the town needs to further embrace live music because entertainment is one of the things that attracts economic development.

“If we’re ever going to attempt to become a mini Nashville, then something like that is going to have to change dramatically,” Whalen said.

Higgins, from Bill’s Music, sees progress.

“Right now, Catonsville is going through a little revitalization and we’re excited about that," he said. “We’re known for music and that’s always been our thing, so I think everybody is trying to branch off that and make it a place for the arts."

More plans for the future

The arts effort in Catonsville is being watched by community groups around the county eager to earn a similar designation in the future.

Debbie Staigerwald is director of The Sky is the Limit Theater, a countywide program based at Dundalk’s North Point Government Center for people with and without disabilities. She participated in a group that discussed the Catonsville’s application and supports efforts to make the county an arts destination.

“We have been told by the county executive that he supports what we’re doing. He is very much in favor of us continuing and having the resources that we need,” she said.

A view on Frederick Road in Catonsville's business corridor Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
A view on Frederick Road in Catonsville's business corridor Sat., Nov. 16, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

There are questions about whether Catonsville, a prosperous suburb that’s also home to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is more deserving of the help than other Baltimore County communities.

Sheila Ruth, a Catonsville activist and former County Council candidate, said the district would benefit the whole county.

“There is a perception from the communities north and south of Catonsville that Catonsville gets a lot of investment and those communities do not," she said. “I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Communities are tapping a patchwork of grants and programs to revitalize other parts of the county, including Reisterstown, Towson and Dundalk.

Democratic County Councilman Julian Jones noted portions of land in Woodlawn, Owings Mills, Essex, Middle River, Catonsville and Arbutus are also opportunity zones. The federal program gives tax incentives to businesses in “distressed areas.” Jones said they’re looking into whether an arts district is “something for us.”

State rules limit counties to one new arts and entertainment district per year, and the state typically creates just four new districts each year.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has said he’s committed to making the county “a world-class tourist destination.” That could involve establishing several more arts districts throughout the county, Spencer said, and the arts guild has been working with other groups to make that happen.

“We are going to be the forward launch of that, and that’s exciting," she said.

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