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Editorial: Arts districts must be protected

It’s encouraging to see that Baltimore’s arts districts — Highlandtown, Station North and Bromo Tower — are not only serving as a creative kitchen of sorts for the city’s burgeoning artist class, but are also realizing positive effects for the neighborhoods.

For example, in Highlandtown, one statistic shows that the vacancy rate on Eastern Avenue was 30 percent just five years ago. Today, that number is down to 14 percent. The arts districts, which offer tax breaks for artists who live or work in them, have been exhibiting nice gains overall in nonresidential property taxes from new businesses that see opportunity in a changing climate.

And that’s where the caveat comes in. The arts districts, created in 2002, 2003 and 2012, are intended to be incubators for creativity, but some fear they might become little more than precursors to gentrification.

“You’re trying to take advantage of low property values, not increase them,” Chris Ryer, president of the Southeast Community Development Corp., told The Daily Record.

Artists, too, fear they might be driven aside once these neighborhoods have been sufficiently altered to attract a less intrepid class of homeowners and renters.

Those concerns are not unwarranted.

A study from the National Endowment for the Arts notes that gentrification in U.S. cities increases proportionally compared with the number of artists in specific areas.

“Arts-initiated revitalization can set off gentrification pressures that displace current residents and small businesses, including nonprofit arts organizations. In other words, they may be too successful,” the study states.

There is a sweet spot for artists where their craft can continue to be practiced and the neighborhood maintains a bohemian quality before drawing all those Starbucks and Bed Bath & Beyond stores. Now may be the right time for Maryland, as its arts district program reaches a greater level of maturity, to consider arts retention programs.

According to the NEA study, which examined several scenarios, including the artistic makeover of historic Hollywood in California, the rejuvenation prompted at least one small theater group to decamp for another location and other arts groups were looking to follow suit.

Realizing this, officials in Hollywood responded with the retention program, which facilitated ownership and management of artist live/work spaces. Land banking and community land trusts have been used in other locations to preserve arts and cultural renovations, the study states.

Maryland’s arts districts have been quite successful, according to a report from the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. The highlights from the fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2010 analysis include: the support of nearly 5,000 jobs, about $442 million in state GDP and about $150 million in wages.

With impressive figures like that, it’s critical that stakeholders, from politicians to developers to artists, find proactive measures to ensure the stability of, and prevent the Disney-ification of, the treasures that are Maryland’s arts districts.