Arts Districts Find a Home in Historic Districts


Over the past decade, just north of Baltimore’s Penn Station, there have been encouraging signs of a neighborhood coming alive again. Vibrant murals painted on the sides of buildings. Art lovers sipping wine at exhibit openings housed in former storefronts. An old streetcar barn converted into a movie house. Theater goers flocking to creative new performance spaces. 

Welcome to Station North, Baltimore’s Arts and Entertainment District.

In 2001 Maryland became one of the first states in the country to adopt Arts and Entertainment Districts as a statewide policy strategy for stimulating economic development, providing a unique local experience, and encouraging neighborhood pride. This program provides state incentives to help Maryland localities develop special districts that harness the power of their cultural resources. Maryland jurisdictions, neighborhoods, municipalities, and counties are eligible to request state approval for an Arts and Entertainment District. The following benefits are available to designated districts: 

  • property tax credits for new construction or renovation of certain buildings that create live-work space for artists and/or space for arts and entertainment enterprises
  • an income tax subtraction modification for income derived from artistic work sold by “qualifying residing artists”
  • an exemption from the Admissions and Amusement tax.

Today there are 19 designated Arts and Entertainment Districts in Maryland. The program, which is administered by the State Arts Council, an agency of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts, encourages each community to make the most of its distinctive cultural assets. As a result, no two Arts and Entertainment Districts are alike. Whether rural, urban, or suburban, each district uses a unique blend of performing and visual arts activities, artists, cultural traditions, facilities, public spaces and other amenities to make the area a hub of culture and commerce.

If an Arts and Entertainment District happens to overlap with a designated historic district, business owners and developers can also take advantage of the historic rehabilitation tax credits to renovate historic properties, which can then be marketed to artists or artistic enterprises.

According to a recent State Policy Brief released by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, there are now 12 states with a formalized state role in the creation of cultural districts. These states have established 156 unique cultural districts across the country. The report notes that among the many positive results from establishing a district is increased historic preservation activity. Many of the older buildings located in these districts are easily adapted into affordable cultural work-force housing, artist live/work space, and new homes for cultural organizations that can serve as anchor attractions in a cultural district.

However, a recent Main Street Weekly article points out, while an arts district might seem like an easy option, it’s not a good fit for every community. Author Rebecca Chan notes that deciding to proceed with an arts district requires an honest evaluation of a community’s resources, analysis of the potential effects on residents, commitment by dedicated leadership as well as the community at large, and a huge amount of time and patience to ensure success. She explains that creating a successful arts district depends on a “perfect storm” of policies and resources to ensure long-term, sustainable success. 

Given the right conditions, however, historic commercial districts and arts districts can join forces to create an exciting, engaging visitor experience and stronger community ties for both rural and urban communities. 

This past week preservationists got a firsthand look at the many creative artist live-work spaces and eclectic arts venues in Station North during the National Main Street Conference, which just wrapped up in Baltimore this week. 

Station North got additional visitors at the end of the week during the National Symposium on Arts/Cultural/Entertainment Districts, which took place immediately following the Main Streets conference. The symposium brought policy makers, practitioners, and artists together to discuss the economic, social and cultural impact of designated arts and entertainment districts. Visit www.stationnorth.org/calendar/nsaced for more information.