What's Playing at the Pikes?


Pikesville's Reisterstown Road corridor could use a shot in the arm. Businesses there are struggling and the streets tend to empty after dark. Local residents, noting how other Baltimore Countians have benefited from positive new developments in Owings Mills, Towson and White Marsh, must wonder when Pikesville's turn will come.

Officials of the non-profit Pikesville Cultural Arts Foundation think they have just the ticket. They have proposed a 400-seat performing arts center on the site of the Pikes Theater, the 55-year-old Art Deco movie house that has been closed for a decade. The county recently bought the building for $800,000 and leased it to the foundation.

The group's officials say the center, which could open within five years, would be the region's best mid-sized facility for music and dance recitals. Its location in the 900 block of Reisterstown Road would suit suburbanites wary of venturing downtown for doses of culture. Most important, the officials claim, the center would attract crowds and thus help revitalize local business.

The center is only the second half of the plan. While the foundation tries to raise some $5 million to build the new facility, the Pikes would undergo $300,000 of renovations and re-open, possibly next year, as a cinema for foreign and classic films. Eventually, the revamped theater would be razed to make way for the larger structure.

Though well-intentioned, the folks behind the project must realize its success could depend on a Hollywood-style miracle. They will seek financing from individuals, banks, businesses and government, but that's a tall order in this economy. Many individuals and businesses are short of cash, banks have reined themselves in after their heady loan practices of the 1980s, and government has more pressing needs for the little cash it has on hand. Just last week, the state said it would halve its funding for 175 Maryland arts groups, citing the bad economic climate. That cut followed last year's 10 percent reduction. Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden likes the project but says the county can't offer another cent.

For now, the wiser course might be to start Phase One -- the renovation and re-opening of the cinema -- and shelve Phase Two. It's debatable whether the arts center would ever be able to compete for funding, audience and artists with the area's other big cultural facilities. Nor should it; draining funds and customers from city arts institutions might help the Pikes project but it would harm city attractions that benefit residents of Baltimore and all surrounding counties. In addition, there are doubts that the center, by itself, could breathe life into Pikesville's business core.

A spruced-up Pikes movie house, however, would probably lure as many people as would the arts center. That would bring "Bravos!" from local business owners and film fans alike.

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