On a recent visit to Catonsville, Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. and other officials stopped by Frederick Road staple Trax On Wax to ask Gary Gebler, who has owned the record store for 10 years, what he thought about naming Catonsville an official Arts and Entertainment District.
“If I was going to put an arts district anywhere in Baltimore in its surrounding counties or towns, this is a no-brainer,” Gebler says. “You can’t say this about Towson and Ellicott City—they're great towns and all have their niche. But Catonsville is the only one designated 'Music City, Maryland.'”
Designed to stimulate growth and economic development, the formal state distinction is meant to serve as a catalyst for further commercial growth in the town, and by extension, the county, overall. Currently, there are 29 places with the designation in Maryland—including the Pennsylvania Avenue Arts and Entertainment District in West Baltimore, which earned the title this summer. The main benefit of the distinction: Over the course of a 10-year period, arts and entertainment districts offer tax-related incentives to “help attract artists, arts organizations, and other creative enterprises,” according to the Maryland State Arts Council.
Gebler assumes Olszewski and officials visited other shops, too, but whatever information they gathered must have been supportive. Last week, the Maryland State Arts Council named Catonsville the first Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore County, effective July 2020.
“It’s definitely overdue,” Gebler says. “It’s nice someone else realizes that, as well.”
Fondly known by its moniker “Music City, Maryland,” Catonsville—home to Bill’s Music, an independent instrument shop and landmark since 1965—has long had a reputation as a place for musicians and artists to practice and develop their craft, as well as a destination for locally owned arts businesses. In addition to a bustling music scene, Catonsville is home to artist-run bakeries, live performance spaces, and community-first activation. It also holds an annual arts and crafts festival, which will celebrate its 47th year when it returns next summer.
The town even garnered some national attention this past summer when its own Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon was one of American Idol’s final six contestants. “There’s a lot of musicians coming and going in this area,” Gebler says. “It’s a really cool vibe.”
With the designation, the hope is that the chatter around Catonsville as a destination will only continue to grow.
“This exciting designation highlights Catonsville's vibrant history as well as its bright future,” said Governor Larry Hogan, in a press release. “‘Music City, Maryland’ is a shining success story for Baltimore County.”
As time has passed, the neighborhood’s arts organizations have enjoyed supporting each other. Gebler estimates that one in three of his customers also go to fellow Frederick Road mainstay Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, and vice versa. Emory Knode, a lifelong Catonsville local who founded Appalachian Bluegrass in 1980, has seen firsthand how the city has changed into a place worthy of the distinction.
Knode says that, in an era in which the Internet has changed how, when, and where people shop, he’ll take any boost that he and his fellow small business owners can get.
“It definitely is an evolution of some sort for the city,” Knode says. “Catonsville is very active overall. There are very few vacancies, and when something becomes vacant, typically it gets filled up pretty quickly.”
Becoming an Arts and Entertainment District is far from just a ceremonial title—there is a proven economic benefit. A 2018 Towson University report found that $232.6 million in state GDP was supported by new businesses formed within Arts and Entertainment District boundaries. Overall, Arts and Entertainment Districts contributed more than $1 billion in total state GDP.
“We’ve watched Catonsville grow into a thriving community that welcomes artistic expression of all kinds,” says Jamie Reese, whose parents Bill and Nancy Higgins founded Bill’s Music. “As a musical instrument retailer and lessons studio, we hope the new Arts and Entertainment designation will bring more live music and musicians to our town, increase tourism, and bring our community together even more.”