(Photo by Stephen Babcock)
On the top floor of a former Station North theater, a video game company and a nonprofit that teaches kids computer programming are moving in together.
By the end of the summer, Sparkypants and Code in the Schools expect to be all moved in to a new space in Station North. Located on the third floor of the Centre Theatre, the roughly 10,000-square-foot space has 10 skylights, exposed trusses and no dividing columns. Outside, there’s a deck that looks directly onto the roof of Seventh Metro Church.
Sparkypants founder Jason Coleman had a word for it: “spectacular.”
Under that impressive architecture, the shared space also offers opportunity for the latest collaborative, creative environment to take root in the city’s much-talked-about arts district.
"Station North Arts District, for us, is really symbolic of the change we are wanting to see more of in Baltimore."
“What we are doing, both Code in the Schools and Sparkypants, is so much in keeping with what everyone is trying to accomplish with the building,” said Code in the Schools Executive Director Gretchen LeGrand.
The floor is part of an $18.5 million renovation project undertaken by Jubilee Baltimore to turn the former auto dealership and movie theater into something that can thrive in the Station North as it exists today. Other floors of the building will be occupied by nonprofits, a new home for the Baltimore Jewelry Center and a joint film program run by MICA and Johns Hopkins University.
While projects like the nearby Motor House (in the former Load of Fun art space) seem to ensure that more traditional artists will continue to have space in a neighborhood, the Centre Theatre project points to potential for a broader scope for Station North.
“I’m looking forward to Station North becoming evermore a place where young, creative people can figure what they want to do, and find people who can help them to do it,” said Jubilee Baltimore President Charlie Duff. Since he sees lots of energy and conversation the intersection of art and technology, Duff reasons that “it’s wise to pay attention.”
But when Jubilee purchased the building, there weren’t specific plans to make the Centre Theatre a headquarters for art and tech. In fact, they didn’t have any plans for what the building house, Duff said. Instead, the nonprofit development firm went by a guiding principle.
“If you’re going to have an arts district in America in 2015 and after, you’ve got to take the arts as you find them,” Duff said. “The arts are what people say they are.”
When they looked at the wide-open third floor, Duff and his team initially thought it would be a good place for a theatre or dance company. But, as Duff put it, “the fire marshal had other ideas.”
So they went searching for other potential tenants.
At the same time, Sparkypants was looking for space. The company’s 20 full-time staff was then working out of Coleman’s basement, which he termed, “pretty rustic conditions.” Coleman said the company looked for space in Hunt Valley and Timonium, where most of the area’s video game community is situated.
With staffers coming from Pennsylvania, Station North was about as far south as the company wanted to go, but it offered plenty of opportunity beyond cool space. While the rest of the gaming community may not be there, the company has plenty of connection to the area due to MICA’s presence right down the street.
Coleman said the company’s arts staff is about 75 percent MICA alums, and they have another three interns from the college coming in. The ability to have potential talent walk to their office was increasingly appealing, Coleman said.
At the same time, Code in the Schools already had its name in as a potential tenant at Centre Theatre, said executive director LeGrand. The two-year-old nonprofit, which runs programs that teach underserved Baltimore City youth how to code, is currently housed at office space about five blocks north in Charles Village.
“Station North Arts District, for us, is really symbolic of the change we are wanting to see more of in Baltimore,” LeGrand said.
When the two organizations’ principals realized they were both looking at space in the building, they hatched a plan that eventually became the shared space.
Sparkypants will have about 8,000 square feet of the space, as the company plans to grow to more than 30 employees. The floor plan will be “fairly open,” with some of the space will be arranged into pods where about 5-10 people can work together, Coleman said.
Meanwhile, Code in the Schools will have 1,600 square feet. Housing four full-time staff and the organization’s collection of instructors, it may be a fraction of Sparkypants’ space. But the new home will provide crucial space for a classroom, which will give the nonprofit the first opportunity to host its own classes.
"Being adjacent to a video game company, it's a value add for the kids."
With kids coming to the space, LeGrand also sees plenty of benefits to being located in the same space as a video game company.
Coleman and LeGrand both spoke to the potential for Sparkypants staffers to teach classes and help with events at Code in the Schools. In turn, Code in the Schools students could join MICA students as future interns at Sparkypants.
“Being adjacent to a video game company, it’s a value add for the kids,” LeGrand said. “They get to see what it’s like to work in a game studio.”
And for people like Duff, who are focused on bringing creative people into Baltimore City, the shared space could be a starting point. On a recent tour of the space, he was sure to point out vacant lots adjacent to the building.
“Metro Baltimore already has some legs in the world of computer gaming. We can hope to attract other computer gaming companies to Station North,” he said. “I would love to do that.”