Federal Hill, Baltimore: The Hip Side of the Harbor

2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner

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One of Baltimore's oldest neighborhoods, Federal Hill dates back to the 18th century when it was a thriving center of maritime and commercial activities. During the first half of the 20th century, it attracted hourly workers who invested their savings in homeownership. Following the industrial boom of World War II, however, the neighborhood declined as residents migrated to the suburbs.

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Improvements to the street, anti-litter efforts, and building rehabs enhance the marketability of the neighborhood.

Credit: Linda S. Glisson

A once-vibrant, neighborhood-oriented retail district all but disappeared when faced with the revival of nearby Inner Harbor, which became a tourist hot spot with competing shops and nationally recognized restaurants; the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards; and the construction of a nearby Wal-Mart and the Southside Shopping Center. Businesses closed and the number of poorly maintained and vacant buildings rose. Investors turned away.

One shop owner recalls looking at Federal Hill 20 years ago but decided that "it was too scary" and settled in another area. Eight years ago, she moved back and opened a popular business. "I've seen Federal Hill go from downright dangerous to one of the safest areas in all of Baltimore," she says, crediting Federal Hill Main Street (FHMS) with creating a "secure environment for workers and shoppers."

Selected as one of the six original Baltimore Main Streets in 2000, Federal Hill Main Street was formed to revitalize the historic business district in ways that not only meet the needs of the community but also bring tourists to the area to support its restaurants and small businesses. A strong historic preservation ethic has stabilized this once-threatened business district, reducing its vacancy rate from 20 to 4 percent.

More than 80 new businesses have opened and 18 have expanded their operations. And, with the help of matching grants, more than 40 businesses have improved their façades.

To help protect the neighborhood's unique historic character, Federal Hill Main Street spearheaded its successful nomination as a National Register Historic District and redeveloped an abandoned Public Comfort Station to serve as the Main Street office and Visitors Center. Constructed in the 1920s as one of several comfort stations sited near the city's public markets, the building had become an unsightly and unsafe den for vagrants and stray animals. FHMS transformed this eyesore into a vibrant, centralized meeting place for business owners and residents and, in the process, preserved a historic treasure.

Keeping Federal Hill Clean and Green Streetscape improvements, private-sector building rehabs, and partnerships that address clean and green issues are all part of Federal Hill Main Street's revitalization strategy. The program has two design committees. The first committee focuses on façade improvements; it reviews façade permits, recommends projects for façade improvement grants, and works with the city's code enforcement officials to ensure that local design guidelines are followed.

The second committee deals with public spaces, focusing on public rights of way, crime, and grime. One of this committee's most successful ventures is its Keep Federal Hill Clean and Green Campaign. Designed to keep the district clean and well maintained, the initiative augments the streetscape with beautification projects that enhance the marketability of Federal Hill through sustainable practices that can be easily duplicated and quantified.

One of the highlights of the Clean and Green Campaign is a partnership with Digital Harbor High School. Before the campaign, students were viewed as nuisances who littered and fought in the district. Federal Hill teamed up with the school to build a relationship between students and local merchants. The results have been inspiring. The teenagers formed a monthly volunteer program to clean up the business district, developed an innovative mentoring program with the local elementary school to educate younger students about trash, and created a TV commercial to deter other kids from littering.

Streetscape beautification is another element of Federal Hill Main Street's design strategy. The program's efforts resulted in the installation of 41 new Victorian-style pedestrian streetlights and 13 large flower pots, the planting of 18 new trees, the completion of a gateway sign, and the transformation of a pocket park previously used by drug dealers into an attractive public space.

Festive Federal Hill

Federal Hill has not only transformed its physical appearance; it has successfully re-branded itself as the city's premier shopping and entertainment district. Once known solely for its active night life, with flourishing bars and restaurants but few thriving retail establishments, the district has retooled itself into a family- friendly area that strives to meet everyone's shopping needs.

One of the first steps was to turn the three existing festivals from beer-swilling street parties into events that highlight the historic district, promote local retailers, and attract people of all ages.

"Federal Hill moms came on board as a group to create and operate Little Ones Lane, a children's area, for the district's huge street festivals," recalls former FHMS Director Bonnie Crockett.

Main Street also focused on the surrounding retail establishments by modifying the placement of festival booths and actively promoting the district's shops to the late-night entertainment crowd. To help Federal Hill merchants tap this potentially huge customer base, FHMS created two retail promotions: Moonlight Madness and Spring Fever. During these events, Main Street convinced retailers to stay open until midnight, a first for the business district. Although skeptical, merchants agreed to stay open and to offer a progressive discount from 7 p.m. to midnight. Not only did the events prove successful, but many shop owners reported record sales.

"It was our best day ever as new owners and led to our best weekend ever," says the owner of Lucky Lucy's Canine Café.

Amy Mutch, owner of Amy's Boutique of Federal Hill credits the Moonlight Madness and Spring Fever events with helping her business grow. "Main Street's promotion of Federal Hill as a shopping destination is akin to free advertising," she says. "It's particularly helpful for a new business venture."

Federal Hill's festivals have become so successful that they not only attract thousands of visitors to the neighborhood, they annually raise more than $80,000 in net profit for the Main Street program and serve as an effective business recruitment tool.

Getting Down to Business

Business retention and recruitment are key components of Federal Hill Main Street's revitalization efforts. In 2002-2003, the Business Development Committee completed a massive and thorough market study of the commercial district, as well as the entire South Baltimore peninsula, which it used to create a comprehensive business recruitment and marketing brochure, "Discover Federal Hill." The information gleaned from this study, which was updated in 2006, forms the basis for all of Main Street's economic development efforts.

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The neighborhood's Main Street program supports its local businesses through marketing, a business blog, facade grants, and more.

Credit: Andy Herbick

The committee also compiles and maintains a "Building Availability List" of retail properties for sale or lease in the commercial district. This list, which is updated regularly and posted on the Main Street website, is Federal Hill's most important business recruitment tool. Because it is always current and easy to find, the list has helped FHMS capitalize quickly on retail opportunities. When it learned that the district's Dollar Store was closing, the Main Street program partnered with the city to secure the space for an Ace Hardware store, which needed the loading dock that the vacant building offered.

More recently, FHMS helped a woman-owned business, Whimsy/Reason, open in Federal Hill. This unique shop, which features an assortment of gifts, clothing, jewelry, and accessories for women, fills an important retail gap in the commercial district.

Owners Patty Pearson and Jennifer Solomon, a mother-daughter team, have high praise for Federal Hill Main Street: "With their help, we applied for and received a façade grant, which enabled us to restructure our storefront while preserving [its] historic character. FHMS was also a valuable source of information about zoning and code issues, connecting us with the right people to develop our plans and ideas and providing an excellent network of retailers with whom to share advertising [and other] ideas."

Such collaboration, say Pearson and Solomon, "creates a camaraderie that becomes the Main Street ideal. With the cooperation and teamwork of retailers, residents, and Federal Hill Main Street, we have enjoyed outstanding activities, festivals, celebrations, and special sales events."

The Business Development Committee is constantly moving forward. Its most recent venture is a Federal Hill business blog that highlights local businesses, news, events, and accomplishments.

Bringing the Community Together

Bringing people together, whether retailers or residents, is one of Federal Hill Main Street's greatest strengths. "From its inception, FHMS has set the standard organizationally for other Baltimore Main Streets neighborhoods," says Donna Langley, director of the citywide Main Street program. "The program has consistently had four strong committees and an active board of directors, and has taken every opportunity to recruit volunteers. It serves as an example of how a group of committed citizens can collaborate effectively to make a positive impact." Federal Hill Main Street's successes are completely due to the neighborhood's strong volunteer commitment to the program, says Langley. In 2007 alone, 637 volunteers provided nearly 3,000 hours of service to Federal Hill's small businesses.

The program recruits its committee and board members from the one-day volunteers who work on the festivals. Each event has "volunteer leaders" who supervise other volunteers and keep an eye out for potential recruits.

During its first few years, nearly 80 percent of Main Street volunteers were residents. As the revitalization effort evolved and the district improved, however, more business owners became involved.

"A remarkable number of residents and business owners in Federal Hill have taken part in the district's revitalization, breathing life into the … Main Street program beyond anyone's expectations," says Crockett. "The amazing people of Federal Hill have demonstrated through Federal Hill Main Street that a community can accomplish just about anything when everyone works together."

Revitalization Statistics – 2000-2008

  • Population: 2402
  • District Size: 20 blocks
  • Year of Incorporation: 2000
  • Net jobs gained: 270
  • Net new businesses: 84
  • Number of rehabilitation projects: 58
  • Number of new buildings: 0
  • Vacancy rate when program began: 20%
  • Vacancy rate today: 4%
  • Public investment: $350,000
  • Private investment: $1,000,000

"Working together" is the key. Federal Hill Main Street has brought the major players to the table and convinced them to collaborate. The program has served as a liaison between city and state government agencies, local business and community associations, schools, area nonprofits, individual merchants and residents, and consultants.

A New Reputation

To address business and community concerns about Federal Hill's image as solely a nighttime entertainment district, Main Street facilitated a summit with the Responsible Hospitality Institute. City officials, resident and business groups, bar owners and retailers, police, and code enforcement officials all attended. Afterwards, retailers and bar owners began working together for the first time to improve the district's image.

Although recently named "Baltimore's Best Shopping Neighborhood" by Baltimore Magazine, Federal Hill isn't resting on its laurels. Federal Hill Main Street and its partners have great plans for the next five years. A new marketing campaign, "Explore the Hip Side of the Harbor," is aimed at attracting tourists from nearby Inner Harbor to shop and dine in Federal Hill.

FHMS is working closely with key staff at major hotels and the Baltimore CVB to promote Federal Hill to their guests and establish the Main Street office as a satellite visitor's center. To complement the marketing campaign, the district is planning physical improvements to the entry point of the neighborhood and working to develop a means of free transportation between the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill.

Optimism abounds as Federal Hill Main Street leads this historic commercial district out of stagnation into an era of extraordinary growth. "Where once there were piles of torn trash bags and loose litter, now there are hanging flower baskets and street trees," extols local developer, Pat Turner. "Once full of boarded-up, abandoned properties, Federal Hill now has busy retail shops in charmingly rehabbed buildings."

These successes are the result of "dedicated, caring, visionary volunteers," says Amy Grace, president of Federal Hill Main Street's board of directors. "They show that when people care about where they live, great things can happen."