Two ol’ buddies are going to save Pikesville. At least they will, after they finish up a few hundred breakfast meetings.
One of those buddies is Mel Mintz, chairman of 1000 Friends of Pikesville, a nonprofit organization consisting of around 1,500 members, far exceeding its original goal of — you guessed it — 1,000 members. The goal is to revitalize Pikesville, in part by qualifying Pikesville as an arts district.
Howard Needle, president of 1000 Friends of Pikesville, said that he and Mintz co-founded the organization in 2014 after they realized over lunch one day that Pikesville faces the challenge of an aging community.
“Our initial goal was pretty aspirational,” Mintz said. “We set out recognizing the challenges in older communities, similar to the early ‘90s when I created my first revitalization plan, which was successful.” When Mintz was a Baltimore County councilman, he co-sponsored a bill to set up tax credits for businesses in older neighborhoods, and his 1991 resolution called for regional cooperation in economic development.
Mintz’s motivation to sustain Pikesville, his hometown, is tied to his history of community involvement, he said.
Mintz and Needle, both members of Har Sinai – Oheb Shalom Congregation, see Pikesville as an important part of the county’s Jewish community.
A study by The Associated in 2010 found that Pikesville is home to 30% of Baltimore-area Jews. According to data from Zillow, this population is growing and projected to expand.
Though still in the initial phase, the 1000 Friends founders have ideas to fill Pikesville’s vacancies (such as on Reisterstown Road) and grow the economy.
“We’ve got to do something about it because nobody else is,” said Needle. So, the two have held hundreds of interviews with property owners, merchants, elected officials, and chambers of commerce staff over breakfast. Needle jokes that they put on some weight from all the talks. These talks culminated in a cohesive report that they sent to the county in 2016, and which was revised last year.
The report outlines committees for landscaping, traffic, and biking projects. The most ambitious of these proposals, Mintz said, is a revamping of the Pikesville Armory. The group would like to see part of it become a hub for artists and pop-up shops. The group also has several ideas for inside the Armory, where the training field once was. That space could be sports arenas or even an outside amphitheater. Needle said that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra could potentially play there, but they would need to look into the acoustics.
Around the area are also 90 garages, which could be studio homes, galleries, ice cream shops, bookstores, and jewelry art shops. Mintz would like to have local artists use the walls for murals as backdrops to festivals.
Next to the Armory is a separate building, which Needle would like to see become a new location for the Pikesville Senior Center. Right now, the center has two floors, which, he said, could be dangerous for those in wheelchairs if there is a fire and they cannot use the elevator.
“The revitalization of Pikesville, including the Armory project, is so important to the Jewish community,” said Needle. His grandfather was one of the founders of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
Because all of these visions require such thoughtful planning, 1000 Friends funds a committee that sends monthly designs and reports on revitalizing the Armory. The revitalization and remodeling of the Armory is a separate project, according to Mintz. It’s one way to go about Pikesville’s revitalization, as is the dream of an arts district qualification.
“The Armory is just the most flushed details,” said Needle. “We have a number of suggestions from parking to traffic that we’re proud of.”
Mintz said that they understand the value of the arts district qualification, but that it is a more distant goal. “The importance of any designation, arts and entertainment, is a big thing. The value gained from tax credits and benefits are more feasible economically to be a success. The value is clear.”
One challenge the revitalization plan faces is the online market. People can order products online, whereas a physical atmosphere — like the plan for the Armory — can attract people to shop, dine, and spend money on other nearby things.
One 1000 Friends of Pikesville supporter is Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
“Like many in the community, we are supportive of this effort to redevelop this part of Pikesville, involving the Armory and the area around it,” Libit said. “Pikesville has long been a central part of Jewish life in Baltimore, much like Park Heights, and we believe that finding a broadly supported community use for the Armory property would be a boost to the area.”
Libit toured the property with Gov. Larry Hogan two years ago and said he appreciates the governor’s support.
“I want to be clear that our support for 1000 Friends of Pikesville does not mean that we are necessarily supporting the specific vision put forward by Mr. Needle. We agree with 1000 Friends that the Armory property ought to be repurposed for a community use, but we have not signed on to any specific vision or plan,” Libit said. “We have heard a number of different community-oriented options that are worthy of consideration.”
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has also shown support for the revitalization.
“The County Executive remains committed to the ongoing revitalization of the Pikesville commercial corridor and in collaborating with the community and other stakeholders throughout that process,” Sean Naron, press secretary for the office of Olszewski, said in an email. “The County has committed to providing matching state funds up to $175,000 in order to continue study and planning at the state-owned Armory, and has continued to support the Baltimore County Department of Planning’s efforts through the Pikesville Revitalization Corridor Study.”
He too noted that the office has not currently endorsed a specific proposal. “Efforts to further analyze the feasibility and planning of future uses for the historic site remain ongoing,” said Naron.
This is partly because the specifics have not yet been ironed out, particularly when it comes to finances, according to Needle.
The organization does not have fundraisers. “We’ve been reluctant to fundraise because, over last six years, Howard and I pick up the incidentals. There’s many small expenses, but they are starting to add up, so we ask for small contributions,” said Mintz.
The two plan to continue to gather members and keep in touch with elected officials. They hope to hear a decision about the Armory property soon and have hired consultants to weigh the feasibility of the vision.
“We’re just two old guys trying to figure it out,” Needle said.