- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

A Minneapolis developer is planning a theater and 140 art studios in upper Prince George's County, Md., a $51 million project that proponents hope will give the area a funky feel and make it more attractive to businesses.

Artspace Projects Inc. wants to build the live-in studios in Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and Brentwood. The nonprofit developer is also planning a performance theater next to a black history museum in North Brentwood.

Prince George's officials believe the new arts district will be the first step in revitalizing the four towns, which are clustered together along the blighted Route 1 corridor outside the District.

"Bringing more artists into these towns will have a profound and rapid impact on economic development," said Prince George's County Council member Peter A. Shapiro, Brentwood Democrat.

The new projects will draw art galleries and businesses that serve artists, such as frame shops and art-supply stores, Mr. Shapiro said.

Eventually, a funky, Bohemian atmosphere will attract a broader range of businesses, such as boutiques and cafes, he said.

"There is a need for a broader range of businesses," said Nick Francis, executive director of the nonprofit Gateway Cultural Development Corp., which pushes for new development in upper Prince George's.

The towns are home primarily to used-car lots, vacant storefronts and small businesses, Mr. Francis said.

Some artists from the District frustrated with rising rent in the city already have started drifting into the area, he said.

Other D.C. area communities have used the arts to draw businesses. The Torpedo Factory a former munitions plant turned into an art gallery helped revitalize the Alexandria waterfront when it opened 26 years ago, according to tourism officials in that city.

The state has committed $1 million to the Prince George's project. The county has agreed to spend roughly $4 million, primarily for land acquisition and demolition.

Artspace has committed $3 million to the project so far. It has also applied for affordable-housing tax credits from the state, which could generate $11 million in funding, said Chris Velasco, the group's director of national advisory services.

Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, a Democrat, said the county and state could spend more as the project progresses. "We believe strongly in this project," he said.

The government could do more to support the arts by giving tax credits to companies that purchase art, said Kenneth R. Timmerman, president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association government watchdog group.

Mr. Timmerman who also reports for Insight, a magazine published by the parent company of The Washington Times said his group has not studied the Prince George's project, but generally opposes government intervention in economic development.

Artspace has built and renovated studio and performance spaces for artists across the country since the late 1980s. Its projects have often been the first step in revitalizing older neighborhoods, Mr. Velasco said.

The group offered last month to redevelop the vacant Mather Building in downtown Washington, which the city wants to turn into live-in studios for artists. But the District rejected the offer because Artspace did not include a security deposit with its bid.

Since Artspace owns its properties, its tenants in Prince George's will not have to worry about other new development in the towns pushing their rent up, Mr. Velasco said.

"As a nonprofit, we aren't subject to the same market forces [as private developers]," he said.

New development is already surfacing in Hyattsville, whose 14,700 residents make it the largest of the four towns.

The owner of the Prince George's Metro Plaza office complex is planning an expansion, and a town-center-style development along East-West Highway has been proposed.

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