Catonsville, Md., is known as “Music City” for its collection of stores selling guitars, mandolins, woodwinds and other instruments. But Baltimore County leaders hope a new state designation will make the town’s main-street commercial district really sing.

The western suburb learned last month its downtown will become the first state-designated arts and entertainment district in Baltimore County. The designation brings tax breaks designed to attract artists — and developers.

Some residents hope it will transform Catonsville into a place where people will come in the afternoon to buy art at a market, check out artists working in their studios, snap a selfie at a mural and then stay into the evening for dinner and a performance at a small venue.

Kirby Spencer, a Catonsville resident and vice president of the Baltimore County Arts Guild, envisions rooftop decks and a cultural arts center in one of Catonsville’s “underutilized properties.”

“I’d love to see music emanating out of businesses like it was Broadway down there,” Spencer said, referring to the heart of Nashville’s nightlife district.

Currently, Frederick Road — Catonsville’s main street — has two shopping centers, a few restaurants and a mix of small businesses, including salons. But town fixtures such as Friendly’s and Plymouth Wallpaper have closed in recent years. The Plymouth sign still hangs over one of the three vacant buildings at Bloomsbury Avenue.

“There’s a lot of people working hard to really make it an exciting destination place,” said Brian Higgins, general manager of Bill’s Music, where nearly 2,000 guitars line the walls.

While he said Catonsville over the years “kind of needed a jump-start a little bit,” Bill’s is a landmark that has thrived for 54 years. Higgins wants musicians to have more places in town where they can collaborate, swap ideas and create.

“We don’t want to become a ghost town out here,” Higgins said. “We want to be known as a hotbed of activity.”

The arts and entertainment designation could encourage artists to create and sell their work, without having to pay state income taxes, and spur property owners and developers to spend money improving existing buildings, also with the help of tax breaks.

Those organizing the effort say Catonsville can draw art studios, performance venues and more bars and restaurants featuring live music, citing Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis and Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center as examples.

“Significant” investors are already interested, said Baltimore County Council member Tom Quirk, though he would not say who. There’s “a genuine excitement and a genuine energy,” he said.

Activists have been seeking the arts and entertainment designation for Catonsville for two years, after the 2018 death of then-Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz delayed the first application.

The Baltimore County Arts Guild, a nonprofit group that supports and promotes county arts programs and events, in 2017 formed “an arts and entertainment council” with leaders from Towson, Pikesville and Dundalk to discuss which community should apply, Spencer said. The southwest corner of the county was deemed “the most viable and ready” location, she said.

Maryland has 28 districts spread throughout Baltimore and 18 counties. A Towson University study found the districts supported $1 billion of economic activity last year, $72 million in state and local tax revenue and almost 10,000 jobs, paying $320 million in wages. The designation is central to big redevelopment projects, such as downtown Silver Spring, and neighborhood efforts such as those in Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue corridor and Highlandtown.

An official arts district provides various incentives, including waiving the state’s 10 percent admissions tax for some businesses, exempting artists who live and work in the district from state income taxes, offering low-interest loans for exterior building improvements and providing property tax credits for owners whose improvements increase a property’s value by at least $100,000 and for developers spending at least $10 million to improve existing buildings.

Catonsville developer Steve Whalen Jr. of Whalen Properties lauded the guild’s “heavy lifting” to put the application together. In his view, the real catalyst was businesses along Frederick Road that wanted to add live music.

An antiquated county law excluded businesses along Frederick Road and some breweries from having live music. That restriction was lifted for Catonsville and Arbutus, and Spencer hopes it will expand to other areas.

Quirk said Catonsville was considered first because a lot of the key organizers live in Catonsville and the surrounding area. “The driving force behind” the designation is knowing people will spend money in the county if they attract artists and build more entertainment venues, he said.

At the Taneytown Deli and Sandwich Shoppe, just a few doors down from Bill’s Music, John Tackett said he hopes Catonsville will shake its perception as a place that rolls up the sidewalks in the evening after businesses close.

“It’s pretty quiet late at night, but it seems like a nice little town,” said Tackett, who lives in Halethorpe and was taking his lunch break at the deli. He hopes some of the new restaurants he has heard are coming have plans for live music.

Some of the businesses do stay open, including the State Fare restaurant. Keith Hosley, a Catonsville native and co-owner of State Fare, said he wants to see an all-day spring music festival in the community one day.

“This is called Music City for a reason. We do our best to have a lot of live music here,” Hosley said. “The next generation of people buying houses in Catonsville all have a lot of energy, and they want to go out and enjoy and support the community.”

Larry Zwick, owner of the Peace of Sunshine smoke shop, is worried more restaurants and nightlife will mean less available parking for his customers. He said that his business “has suffered because of it” and that he sees Catonsville as being “a thruway for the freeways” years from now because “there’s absolutely no parking here.”

Whalen, the developer, is optimistic. He said the Frederick Road business district has “moved in the right direction” in the past couple of years. Now the town needs to further embrace live music, he said, because entertainment is one of the things that attracts economic development.

“If we’re ever going to attempt to become a mini-Nashville, then something like that is going to have to change dramatically,” Whalen said.

Higgins, from Bill’s Music, sees progress. “Right now, Catonsville is going through a little revitalization and we’re excited about that,” he said. “We’re known for music and that’s always been our thing, so I think everybody is trying to branch off that and make it a place for the arts.”

The arts effort in Catonsville is being watched by community groups around Baltimore County eager to earn a similar designation in the future.

Debbie Staigerwald is director of the Sky Is the Limit Theater, a countywide program based at Dundalk’s North Point Government Center for people with and without disabilities. She participated in a group that discussed Catonsville’s application and supports efforts to make the county an arts destination.

“We have been told by the county executive that he supports what we’re doing,” she said. “He is very much in favor of us continuing and having the resources that we need.”

There are questions about whether Catonsville, a prosperous suburb that is also home to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is more deserving of the help than other county communities.

Sheila Ruth, a Catonsville activist and former County Council candidate, said the district would benefit the whole county.

“There is a perception from the communities north and south of Catonsville that Catonsville gets a lot of investment and those communities do not,” she said. “I think that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Communities are tapping a patchwork of grants and programs to revitalize other parts of the county, including Reisterstown, Towson and Dundalk.

County Council member Julian Jones noted portions of land in Woodlawn, Owings Mills, Essex, Middle River, Catonsville and Arbutus are also opportunity zones. The federal program gives tax incentives to businesses in “distressed areas.” Jones said they’re looking into whether an arts district is “something for us.”

State rules limit counties to one new arts and entertainment district per year, and the state typically creates just four new districts each year.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has said he is committed to making the county “a world-class tourist destination.” That could involve establishing several more arts districts throughout the county, Spencer said, and the arts guild has been working with other groups to make that happen.

“We are going to be the forward launch of that, and that’s exciting,” she said.

— Baltimore Sun