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Are Art District Benefits Still Necessary During Recession?

Why recent disputes are causing a fiasco

They’re found in culture-savvy Europe and pockets of art scenes here in the country. If in London they have Shoreditch and Broadway Market, we match them with Noho in L.A. and Pearl District in Portland . Art districts are teeming with all things beautiful to the eye and yes, all other senses as well. It’s where investors, sellers and curious individuals gather together to do business and celebrate famous and upcoming artists who remain true to their passion despite the risk it has to their personal finances.

Art districts are supposed to spur galleries, performance spaces, exhibitions, etc. without the heavy levying of taxes. In return, a city’s reputation for cultivating a mix of creativity is diffused. That’s why every district would like to imitate SoHo perhaps. However, not everything turns out the way they want it to be. In a recent article by the New York Times, Baltimore was put in the spotlight for not reaping the benefits of its arts district. The report states, “The idea for a west side arts district has been around at least since the administration of Kurt L. Schmoke, Baltimore ‘s mayor from 1987 to 1999. Over the years, the city took steps to improve the area, though without official arts district designation… The idea for a west side arts district has been around at least since the administration of Kurt L. Schmoke, Baltimore ‘s mayor from 1987 to 1999. Over the years, the city took steps to improve the area, though without official arts district designation.”

So the issue therefore boils down to the use of space: artsy enclaves or residential pursuits? Think about it, while many people give importance to art, there are a lot more who believe that its purpose is subordinate to better and urgent matters like city revenues and private real estate investments. In the same report, it describes Maryland as having “18 state-approved arts districts, including two in Baltimore . In each district, developers receive property tax reductions for building or renovating arts-related properties. In addition, artists are exempt from Maryland income tax for work created in the district. But according to a state official, there was no way to know how much that exemption costs the state each year.”

And it may not be too long before officials start to think about reconsidering the tax benefits. Two years ago, Commissioner John Thompson Jr., proposed that eliminating property tax credits for artists and entertainers who revitalize buildings in the City of Frederick ‘s downtown, another glitzy art escape. In an interview with the Gazette.net, he says, “I believe that artists and entertainers should pay property taxes at the same rates and proportions as other taxpayers. I believe in across-the-board tax cuts, rather than going interest group by interest group. You have a government program doing nothing. You get rid of programs that don’t apply anymore. There is no interest in this.” I bet he’s ready to bust the party when Baltimore decides to create another art district soon.

Here’s my simple take on this matter. While it is important that the city takes enough revenues every month, it must also give due consideration to the period when an arts district achieves the status of SoHo . It doesn’t happen overnight and in a recessionary economy like this, it would take a while before artists reestablish the district into a profitable hub. If the economy gets back to its feet and still, nothing happens to Baltimore ‘s art venues, I say they should take heed of Commissioner Thompson’s idea.

Case in point: they’ve transformed Fall Church, Washington, D.C. into an arts district last year. Apparently, it’s still testing the weather if it’ll work out. So give Baltimore a chance and if it doesn’t work out, have the city think about its future seriously.

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