A vital Baltimore City permit process used by hundreds of street festivals, block parties and races has moved online this year.
Critics of the city’s older, paper system for obtaining special event permits previously complained it hindered their ability to organize events in public right-of-ways. Over the past year, a coalition of multiple city departments worked quietly to streamline the public-facing system for acquiring permits and paying fees, as well as added a way to reach permit coordinators directly.
Representatives from City Hall and the Department of Transportation hope the updates will modernize a mechanism of city government that helps make events like Artscape, Hampdenfest and Charm City Live possible. Officials began rolling out the updates in the spring and announced the move publicly this week. They say event organizers are now able to go online at any time instead of during business hours to file their permit applications, pay fees and deposits and schedule one-on-one consultations with a city coordinator.
Officials say the online portal, which has been in the works since fall 2022, was informed by user feedback and fits into Mayor Brandon Scott’s vision of modernizing city government’s public services. The city last year processed about 550 permit applications. Prior to the pandemic, that figure fell between 800 and 900 a year.
“In every neighborhood, special events help build community by bringing people together, and we are committed to making that process easier and more efficient,” said Scott in a news release Tuesday.
Obtaining a permit to hold a public event in Baltimore requires sign-off from multiple authorities managing sanitation, transportation, law enforcement, emergency and fire services. Transportation department officials say customers have routinely asked for a way to speak directly with a permit coordinator as they navigate the permit application process.
Organizers can now schedule a virtual meeting or phone call with one of the department’s five coordinators to discuss their event plans and review any permits that are needed.
The online application has also made some things easier for staff members, who no longer need to interpret handwriting or chase down answers to incomplete fields, said Adam Cloud, who oversees the Department of Transportation’s permit process.
The new updates come as some Baltimore event organizers have complained about the “opaque” process for obtaining permits. When this year’s Artscape moved from its usual summer timetable to mid-September, other autumn events like Hampdenfest and Remfest struggled to get their own city permits approved. Organizers for both street festivals have since canceled plans this fall in part because permit approvals, but say they’ll try again in 2024.
Cloud said the office considers all applications on a first-come, first-served basis. Some city services, such as public safety, must also have the bandwidth to cover two major sports teams and multiple entertainment venues in addition to public events. Some event organizers are asked to pick another weekend if city officials worry services will be spread too thin, he said.
While the application process online may be more user-friendly, it isn’t likely to reduce competition between events over availability on Baltimore’s busy calendar.
Artscape officials, for example, have said they plan later this fall to announce the festival’s schedule for 2024. However, organizers for Artscape — or any other event who are eyeing similar dates — cannot as a rule submit a permit application until January.
Cloud said the department’s primary goal is to make sure the customer has a good experience as they work their way through the bureaucratic process. If officials receive more feedback or suggestions in the future, they’re willing to make improvements, he said.
The point, Cloud said, is “we’re open and we’re listening.”