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Legislators want to make Pennsylvania Avenue an arts district

Baltimore delegates to the Maryland General Assembly have introduced a bill to create an economic development area to promote the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor in west Baltimore as a place to live and do business.

House Bill 203 designates the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor as an arts, business and cultural district, with tax incentives for developers, artists and cultural groups. The district's boundaries are from Orchard Street on the south to Fulton Street on the north, Pennsylvania Avenue on the west to McCulloh Street on the east. It includes the Upton, Druid Heights and Penn North neighborhoods. 
 
The bill's broad goals are to restore cultural landmarks, preserve and reuse historical buildings, encourage business and job development, establish a tourist destination and enhance property values. It authorizes tax credits for qualifying individuals who own or rent residential property or conduct a business in the district, or who move there after it has been established. Qualifying individuals are eligible for property tax credit and exemption from admissions and amusement tax.
 
The bill does not specify funding sources for the redevelopment. “You want to establish the district first and the dollars will follow,” says Democratic Delegate Keiffer Mitchell, Jr., a co-sponsor of the bill who represents the district. “There is an array of possible funding that the city and state could use.”
  
“Some commercial development is going on already on Pennsylvania Avenue but I’d like to encourage other types of development,” says Democratic Delegate Melvin Stukes, lead sponsor of the bill who also represents the district.
 
Stukes says he wants to encourage the development of the cultural aspects of the corridor, in particular the construction of a new arts center that would house the Royal Theatre and the Arena Players. The Royal Theatre opened in 1922 and was demolished in 1971. It was a major destination for black entertainers, including Cab Calloway and Ray Charles. The Arena Players is currently housed at 801 McCulloh St.
 
“I see a lot of black history in Baltimore disappearing and I am determined to save as much as possible,” Stukes says.
 
Mitchell says the district would not be the first such district in Baltimore. That honor goes to the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. 
 
“It will help not just Pennsylvania Avenue but all the housing surrounding it, from McCulloh Street to Pennsylvania Avenue,” Mitchell says.
 
Says Stukes, “This not something that will happen overnight. We don’t have preliminary figures for the cost and how long it will take. But we want to begin a serious discussion on having it happen.”

The bill had its first reading before the House Economic Matters Committee last month. To date, a hearing has not been scheduled. If passed, the arts, business and cultural district designation would need approval from the Baltimore City Council. 

Nonetheless, both Stukes and Mitchell say they are optimistic about passage in the General Assembly. “Economic development for the City of Baltimore is viewed favorably,” Mitchell says. “And in terms of revitalizing the arts in the city and that this is an historical area, it bodes well for passage.”
 
Sources: Melvin Stukes and Keiffer Mitchell, Jr., Maryland House of Delegates
Writer: Barbara Pash
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