The five-foot-high plywood chopsticks lean against the wall of an empty office inside the Mid-County Services Center in Wheaton. The oversize eating utensils are covered in a patchwork of miniature paintings. Scattered around the room are 11 other oversize pieces -- a couple of forks and spoons, a pair of bowls, a pear, a teacup and a pitcher -- all painted in a similar fashion.
Wheaton residents will soon be spotting the plywood tableware in the Mid-County Services Center and possibly around town. They could mark the beginning of a new identity for downtown Wheaton as an arts and entertainment district.
Wheaton redevelopment officials have tossed around the idea of establishing such a district for the past two years. But the public art display is the first indication that the idea is moving forward.
Redevelopment officials commissioned the artwork for this year's Taste of Wheaton, the festival featuring food from local restaurants, which took place May 18. Silver Spring-based artist Rosana Azar came up with the idea of the super-size utensils and dishes. She divided each piece into smaller segments and had residents paint whatever they wanted onto them. The results run from childlike landscapes to abstract patterns.
Natalie Cantor, director of the Mid-County Services Center, likened the pop art-style works to the "PandaMania" campaign in Washington, where decorated panda figures have been placed on sidewalks throughout the city.
"Of course, we don't have nearly the budget [the District] has to produce those things," said Leslie Maxam, marketing and special events manager for the Wheaton Redevelopment and Urban District Team.
Whereas the District's panda sculptures use public art to generate tourism and help brand Washington as a destination, the idea behind the Taste of Wheaton utensils was to "get people thinking about art in Wheaton," Maxam said.
To bring more culture to Wheaton, Wheaton redevelopment officials are looking into applying for designation as an arts and entertainment district. With the designation, which must be approved by the state legislature, come tax incentives for artists and arts organizations that move to Wheaton.
Wheaton doesn't have much in the way of art galleries, movie production houses or theater companies. On a recent weekend, one of the few arts-related events in Wheaton was a painting and sculpture show at Brookside Gardens. Inside the visitors center, however, no one stopped to admire Betty Ruhe Wright's watercolor of two cicadas, titled "Let's Makelove." And in the conservatory, passersby barely noticed Barry R. Perlis's "Two Lovers," a red-and-blue metal sculpture tucked into a patch of tropical plants.
Kensington resident Mike Bur said he wandered into the sculpture exhibit after watching his nephew's baseball game at a nearby park. Bur, who grew up in Wheaton, said he comes to Wheaton for its ethnic food offerings, not its culture. He called the idea of making Wheaton more of an arts destination "a worthy effort."
"Given what's happened in Silver Spring . . . it's natural that Wheaton would then follow suit," he said.
Boosters hope to build on Wheaton's main arts-related assets: Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center on Veirs Mill Road and its sister company, Washington Professional Systems.
Washington Music Center, which trade publications have called the largest music store in the country and has been a Wheaton institution since 1968, sells musical instruments as well as lighting, sound and recording equipment. Washington Professional Systems sells and installs high-end audio and video production equipment for stadiums, boardrooms and music venues. Famous customers include Stevie Wonder and the Talking Heads.
Over the years, Wheaton redevelopment officials have talked about hosting an annual music festival, said Robert Levin, Washington Music Center's chief executive. Levin took over the company from his father, Chuck, who died two years ago.
"It has always been my thought and the thought of redevelopment folks here that given that Chuck Levin's is already here . . . every musician in half of the U.S. knows the name Wheaton, Maryland. It's an absolute natural to encourage more musical and other kinds of artistic expression in this area," Cantor said.
The benefits of being designated an arts and entertainment district include property tax credits for businesses that build or renovate a space for an arts-related use. Qualified artists living in the area would also not have to pay state or local income tax on the money they earn from selling their art.
Wheaton is an enterprise zone, which allows businesses to claim property tax credits over five year for renovations, expansions or capital improvements. Businesses also get income-tax credits for new full-time employees.
Whether state legislators will approve additional tax incentives for Wheaton is unclear. The Wheaton Urban District Advisory Committee lobbied to have a sales-tax-free day for all enterprise zones, but the committee's proposal was not introduced this session, Cantor said. The Senate also killed a recent proposal to have a sales-tax-free weekend in August to boost back-to-school business.
And unlike Silver Spring's, Wheaton's central business district is seeing development activity without an attraction such as the renovated AFI Silver Theatre. Near the Wheaton Metro station, the Bozzuto Group and Eakin/Youngentob Associates are constructing townhomes. Bozzuto is also building housing at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive. Along with Olympia Development, Bozzuto is constructing a 300,000-square-foot office building at Georgia Avenue and Veirs Mill Road. Pulte Homes is building more housing on the former Wheaton Lumber site. And Westfield Shopping Center is being expanded to include a Macy's and 50 stores.
Cantor said Wheaton could still use a few coffeehouses and art galleries. "In a practical sense, if we want to have a 24-7 downtown, we need a cultural component," he said.