Baltimore arts gallery owner celebrates 10 years of success sparked by small business assistance
Maryland financing program Neighborhood BusinessWorks ‘believed in my mission, the goals of my small business’
Felicia Zannino-Baker has always been connected with Baltimore.
Her family established Zannino Funeral Home in the Highlandtown community in 1961 and she grew up with fond memories of the neighborhood.
“The residential community was extremely wholesome with hard working, primarily European immigrants like ourselves,” she said.
Zannino-Baker was drawn to the arts, which eventually led to a degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and then a successful interior design career in Washington, D.C. But her hometown was never far from her thoughts. Zannino-Baker took notice when the Highlandtown Arts District was created in 2003. By 2010, Zannino-Baker wanted to open her own arts space, Highlandtown Gallery.
“Highlandtown had become an Arts & Entertainment district, so when the opportunity came up to purchase the building across the street from my parents’ funeral home, I was eager to be part of the arts community, the renaissance of my hometown community and the cherry on top was to be closer to my family,” she said.
But owning a building damaged by an earthquake in 2011 and dealing with a housing market recovering from the 2008 economic downturn meant loans were a challenge for Zannino-Baker. However, she had help in the form of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Neighborhood BusinessWorks Program.
Neighborhood BusinessWorks loan program provides flexible financing to new or expanding small businesses and nonprofit organizations in Sustainable Communities and Priority Funding Areas throughout the state. Maryland-based small businesses, local development corporations and nonprofit organizations whose activities contribute to a broader revitalization effort, and whose projects are intended to promote investment in commercial districts or town centers are eligible for this program. In just Fiscal Year 2022 alone, the department provided $9.3 million in capital to 44 new and growing small businesses through the Neighborhood BusinessWorks lending program.
Zannino-Baker said DHCD staff helped her throughout the NBW loan application process. With a gap loan through MD DHCD, she was able to renovate and open the gallery. That led to another DHCD loan and after several years of smaller capital improvements, Zannino-Baker was able to successfully complete the entire historical renovation of this elegant building in Highlandtown.
Zannino-Baker said both loans were paid off within five years and today, Highlandtown Gallery continues to be successful. The building currently houses three outstanding galleries on the first floor — Highlandtown Gallery, Zwiebach Creations and Crystal Moll Gallery — and two residential units above.
September marked a decade that Highlandtown Gallery has served as a spot in the neighborhood showcasing regional emerging and established artists.
“We are about to embark on our 10th anniversary of operation, with both my interior design firm and art gallery serving our region along with the over 300 artists with whom we have supported and featured during this amazing journey,” she said. “We welcome hundreds of guests each month, including during the Arts District’s monthly ‘Highlandtown First Friday Artwalk,’ as an anchor of the event and the community.”
Part of that success is due to the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, Zannino-Baker said.
“I certainly could not have achieved this without the assistance of the MD DHCD,” she said. “This agency believed in my mission, the goals of my small business, and took a chance on this hometown Italian-American girl from Highlandtown.”
Are you a small business owner wondering if the Neighborhood BusinessWorks program is right for you? Information about the DHCD’s Neighborhood BusinessWorks loans can be found here: Neighborhood BusinessWorks (maryland.gov). The program is also administering federal funding through the $198 million State Small Business Credit Initiative, allowing the department to go above and beyond its regular lending capacity and serve even more businesses across the state. To learn more about all of the small business assistance programs available through the federal funding, go to open.maryland.gov/ssbci.