PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Burt Kranka recalls a time not many years ago when one of his artist friends used to hit golf balls off the roof of a downtown building into the streets below and nobody noticed or cared.
"It was almost a ghost town," said Kranka, the founder of an artists' collective in this historic New England capital that suffered through the decline of the textile mills but retains a healthy stock of impressive 19th-century commercial architecture.
Now downtown Providence is in the midst of a revival that is gaining national attention. Old office buildings in the Downcity area are being converted into loft apartments. Theaters are doing a booming business. Visual artists, writers and performers are moving to the city to take advantage of its low rents and thriving cultural scene. "Providence" has become a popular NBC show that is filmed here.
Kranka and others say one of the key steps the city of 173,000 took to spark the downtown renaissance was the creation of an arts and entertainment district in 1996, with tax breaks for artists.
It's an idea that is coming to Baltimore and other Maryland cities soon under legislation that Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed yesterday.
The measure, which passed the General Assembly on the last day of this year's legislative session, was inspired by the Providence example, according to its House sponsor.
Del. Joan C. Pitkin has been pushing the idea since she heard about the Rhode Island legislation four years ago, but last summer was the first time she actually visited Providence to see how the groundbreaking legislation was working.
"I loved what I saw, and it's still a work in progress," the Prince George's County Democrat said.
Rhode Island law lets localities create arts and entertainment districts where a series of tax breaks apply.
In the roughly 10-block-square downtown Providence district, artists can receive income tax breaks, art purchases are exempt from sales tax, and developers who create spaces for artists to live and work can avoid paying property tax on the value of the improvements for 10 years.
The idea behind it: Where art flourishes, economic development and tourism follow.
Kranka said the type of young, well-educated workers that high-technology firms are looking for want to live among artists and in cities with rich cultural scenes. He said so many of them are finding what they want in downtown Providence that it's now hard to park in the once-deserted streets.
Providence residents give much of the credit for the cultural revival to Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, who championed the legislation and successfully lobbied legislators to override a gubernatorial veto of the bill.
Advocates for the arts say the mayor constantly promotes the arts and involves artists in city planning decisions.
"The mayor is our biggest arts advocate. He is always talking about the artists that are in the city," said Diana DeCesaris, director of Center City Contemporary Arts, a nonprofit organization.
Cianci said the economic spinoff from the arts is "tremendous." He talks about the city's 92 percent downtown hotel occupancy rate, a wave of construction and renovation and Money magazine's rating of Providence as one of the nation's five "most livable cities."
He said the tax district legislation has been a success because it has given Providence the image of being "artist-friendly."
The tax benefits are a concrete expression of the city's esteem for artists such as Michael Bryce, who said it has helped him establish his gallery in the city - though he has since moved out of the downtown arts district to a neighborhood where rent is cheaper.
Though the tax breaks have been used by a handful of artists and developers so far, Bryce and others say they are less important than the message they have sent that Providence welcomes artists.
"I've had people coming down from New York and Boston looking for the gallery scene and finding it alive and well," he said.
Buff Chase, a prominent Providence developer, said the redevelopment of the downtown district got off to a slow start because the original Providence bill lacked a key component - a break on property taxes for those who renovate buildings for artists' lofts and studios in the district.
Chase said such a benefit, which is allowed in the Maryland bill, has since been adopted in Rhode Island and is beginning to show results.
His company has completed the renovation of one loft building and will finish another, the historic Alice Building, in December. With five more projects to be done over the next year, he's beginning to feel optimistic about Downcity revitalization.
"I'm more confident that it's going to happen than three, four, five years ago," he said.
Chase said cities seeking to emulate Providence shouldn't rely on tax credits alone. His advice: "Get a comprehensive program."
Cianci said that's what he's doing. The tax district, he said, is only a part of an arts-centered economic development strategy.
One of the first steps Cianci took to establish Providence as an arts center was to throw his support in 1994 behind what seemed to be a local artist's harebrained scheme of setting the rivers afire. That attraction, called Waterfire, consists of a series of braziers in the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers that are lit like torches and accompanied by music.
Waterfire has proven to be a remarkable success, attracting crowds as large as 50,000 to downtown Providence on summer weekend nights.
"Waterfire proved it: The arts can make money for the city," said George Donnelly, executive director of the Providence Tourism Council.
The mayor has also invested city money in the effort, including funds for such institutions as the highly regarded Trinity Repertory Company, a theater troupe that occupies a restored 1911 burlesque house in the arts district.
The city has aggressively encouraged an outdoor sculpture program, and whimsical works can be seen scattered throughout the city. Providence also sponsors an event called "Gallery Night" in which galleries keep extended hours one night a month while the city provides free trolley rides from shop to shop.
Cianci has mobilized support from the private sector as well, including $9 million set aside by the philanthropic Rhode Island Foundation for redevelopment in the arts district.
Maryland's bill, sponsored in the Senate by Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, has some provisions that go beyond the Rhode Island law.
For instance, the Maryland legislation lets local governments waive entertainment taxes in designated arts districts and expands a state economic development program so it can be used to fund arts-related projects.
Mayor Martin O'Malley heard about the idea from Cianci when he first attended "mayor's school" shortly after his election. This year, he testified in favor of the bill at its Senate hearing.
O'Malley said the city is beginning the process of selecting the first neighborhood to be designated. The law permits jurisdictions to create one district each calendar year.
The mayor said the city will publicize the program this summer and seek proposals by mid-September. He hopes to make a selection in October.
O'Malley said he doesn't have a specific neighborhood in mind, though he mentioned the west-side redevelopment area, Reservoir Hill and Southwest Baltimore as possible candidates.
The mayor said the city is unlikely to select an area that is flourishing.
"This is a tool to revitalize an area that has character and great potential but a lot of vacant storefronts," O'Malley said.
The arts district concept has excited interest in many parts of the state, including Bowie, Hagerstown, Cumberland, Bethesda and smaller "gateway" communities along the Prince George's County-Washington line.
The law limits the number of art districts created statewide in one year to six, with the choice to be made by the secretary of business and economic development.
David J. Deutsch, city manager of Bowie, said his Prince George's community is looking to the program for a boost in its effort to revitalize its Old Bowie antiques district.
"Right now it really needs an injection of activity and, quite frankly, cash," he said. "There are some aspects of the legislation that may provide incentives for artists to open up various shops and studios there."
Cianci cautioned that creating an arts district by itself is not enough to spark a renaissance. He said it requires the personal involvement of elected officials.
"The mayor's got to do it," he said. "He's got to set an agenda with the people."