Evan Moritz of Annex Theater recalls a conversation with Ryan Haase of Stillpointe Theatre. "Ryan Haase came up to me one night and he was like, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if the old vaudeville area that had theaters before had theaters again?'"
He was talking about North Howard Street.
"Last fall, all of our groups came together with this mutual concern about lack of stable space," Bales continues the story as we walk around the outside of the now-vacant buildings at 408-414 N. Howard St., on which a group, loosely calling itself Baltimore Theater Co-op, recently submitted the only bid in response to the city's Request for Proposals (RFP) for the three storefronts. The group is made up of some of the most interesting performance groups in the city: Annex Theater, EMP Collective, Effervescent Collective, Stillpointe Theatre, Acme Corporation, and Psychic Readings, a group run by erstwhile Baltimorean Ric Royer, in Providence, R.I.
"We'd all been organizations that had been around for a while, and we're looking to make that next step in growing our locations in making them more stable, sustainable, and permanent," Bales continues. "We all met together in this grand conference to see how we can solve that and possibly approach the city about acquiring and maybe sharing some sort of financial resources and rehabbing the buildings. In our preliminary talks, this RFP came out of the mists at the exact block we were looking at."
The immediate area surrounding the buildings the theater co-op hopes to buy is already home to Current, the H&H Building, Coward Shoe, and EMP's current location. "There's already this constellation in the area, except so many of the places are tenuous" says Lily Kind, founder of Effervescent Collective. "This used to be a certain kind of destination that is different than Station North. A lot of us are interested in this particular space. It's not just that we ended up here. We have a real sense of the landscape, we're already in this place, and then the RFP comes up for this block."
They imagine a much different vista than one sees today when looking at the crumbling buildings on Howard, with performance spaces lining the street, and rather than competing, helping to bring more vitality to the area and to each group. Three of the groups-Annex, EMP, and Psychic Readings-would act as parent organizations, while three others-Effervescent, Acme, and Stillpointe-would be resident organizations, with SocEnt Baltimore, a small-business incubator for businesses with a social justice component, would take over the second and third floor.
The prospect of a theatrical hub on Howard was enough to help bring Royer, who left to work on a doctorate at Brown, back to the city. "When Royer left, one of the things he said to me is how much he loved Baltimore and the performance scene but [that] there's a ceiling, and no one will get above that ceiling," Moritz recalls. "To me, it's really telling that as we started figuring out this project, he is coming back to town after having said that several years ago. It signals to me that a flag went up that we might be able to break through."
Performers aren't the only ones optimistic about the project. Vincent Lancisi of Everyman Theatre and the new director of the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District has been a huge supporter, and developer Teddy Rouse has jumped on board. "Immediately he was really into the idea," says Moritz.
"He was facilitating rather than being a developer," adds Bales.
"He was like, 'If you're going to raise that much money, you can just own the building. You can fundraise the same amount and own,'" Moritz says, acknowledging that $2.7 million is no small amount to raise.
The city has yet to respond to the proposal.
"We have no comment, but we are reviewing the proposals," says Dan Taylor of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC).
Moritz notes that the group feels some sense of urgency. "If we can't apply for the historic tax credits in August, it will delay the project by at least a year," he says.