Economic and Community Development Commission
The Christmas and July 4th parades. The Film Festival. The Armory refurbishment. The parking garage. Each of these additions to the cultural, community and economic landscape were made possible by the vision and support of the Economic and Community Development Commission of Bel Air.
Established in 1974, the Bel Air Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC) is a volunteer organization focused on enhancing the quality of life, attracting new businesses and retaining existing businesses in the Town of Bel Air. Their scope of work consists of any project where the goal is making improvements to create a healthier economic environment.
Five to nine members are appointed for a three-year term by the Board of Town Commissioners. While Bel Air residency is not required, it is preferred to keep the nuances of Town life in perspective. “We want local people who are qualified, interested and invested,” says Trish Heidenreich, Director of Economic Development for Bel Air. “It’s an important job.” The members elect their own chairperson and vice chair by majority vote, with the current top spots filled by Deborah Haney, Retail Strategist at StreetSense, as chair and Paul Thompson, President, Architectural Design Works, Inc., as vice-chair.
The Commission meets at least nine times a year on the second Thursday of each month and is administratively supported by the Bel Air Economic Development Department. “The ECDC is the think tank for economic development in the town of Bel Air. I administrate for the citizens. My job is to help facilitate the projects of the commission and act as a liaison to both ECDC and to the larger Economic Development Advisory Board for the County.” To fully integrate and implement its plans with all the necessary stakeholders, the ECDC coordinates with Scott Walker, Executive Director of the Alliance, and with Tucker McNulty, Finance Manager for the Harford County Office of Economic Development and liaison to the Town of Bel Air.
Bel Air may have a big sounding name, but in reality only covers 3.03 square miles. As the “Heart of Harford,” a phrase coined by the Downtown Alliance of Bel Air, it serves many more than its 10,000-plus residents.
In addition to Main Street, the Town of Bel Air includes the entire Upper Chesapeake Health campus, the County seat and its representative headquarters and offices, and the Route 1 retail corridor including Harford Mall. It was the opening of the Harford Mall in 1972 that prompted the formation of the originally named Community Development Commission. Enclosed malls were starting to gain ground across the country and small town Main Streets were fearful of becoming irrelevant. Townspeople in Bel Air wanted to avoid this and established the commission soon after, explains Heidenreich.
In 1990, the ECDC brought garage parking to town to help alleviate parking frustration that accompanied the renewed interest in the shops and businesses on Main Street. The garage is a short, easy walk to the many boutiques and restaurants on Main Street as well as the offices of lawyers, insurance firms, and government agencies. The ECDC was also instrumental in creating the Bel Air Farmer’s Market, the lunchtime concerts, and the addition of original artwork throughout town. “When I was first appointed, Main Street had extreme vacancy rates and mostly office space serving the County and Courthouses,” remembers ECDC Vice-Chair Paul Thompson. “ECDC was working on getting a new parking facility to encourage the back filling of existing spaces and support new development. We also established the Archer Bull Award to promote design and construction excellence, while helping the commissioners establish the Business of the Year Award. But, it wasn’t until [former Director of Planning] Carol Deibel and the ECDC supported the application for and won Bel Air’s designation as a Maryland Main Street in 2001 that helped get the [Bel Air] Downtown Alliance up and running and attract new restaurants and retailers.”
Jay Ellenby, CEO of Safe Harbors Travel Group, one of Main Street’s newest tenants, was appointed to the ECDC in 2011. He says, “We are working on projects such as a new parking garage, the Christmas parade, sustainability and assisting the town’s efforts in attracting and supporting new businesses in Bel Air. Since Bel Air is such a great place to live and work, I just want to help the town maximize its potential as a true Main Street, USA community!”
Chair Deborah Haney, a member of the ECDC since 2007, also echoes the commission’s focus on improved parking and sustainability. She adds additional bike/walk paths, the beginnings of a recycling program, and points to one of the commission’s largest undertaking to date, the Plumtree Park Improvement Project. Plumtree Park was originally developed in the 1950s and primarily serves the residential neighborhood of Howard Park with green space, playground equipment and picnic areas. The improvement project was originally conceived more than two years ago after a recommendation to recapture some of the natural landscape and daylight the stream, but has evolved into a complete renovation of the park. Scheduled for completion in spring 2013, the improvements encompass alleviating drainage issues from an underperforming culvert, new sidewalks, new playground equipment to meet current national safety standards, and passive recreation for the nearby growing senior population. The plan incorporates low-impact development techniques such as permeable pavers and the use of vegetation and wetland pockets along the stream bank. Additionally, the enhanced park will integrate elements and fixtures to address Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), such as natural surveillance with increased foot and bike traffic, unobstructed views, and proper lighting. The park plan is projected to cost $600,000, with $200,000 obtained from Department of Natural Resources Community Development grants.
Pursuing the addition of bike and walk paths throughout Bel Air follows the Economic Revitalization Strategy outlined in the 2005 document presented to the Town by HRG Consultants, Inc. “That was a very ambitious plan,” says Heidenreich. “We’re in the process now of moving it to digital format so that it can be an interactive and living and breathing plan for everyone.” Haney adds, “We refer to it and work on the projects as time and money permits.”
Both Heidenreich and Haney encourage all interested parties to get involved in the ECDC and its missions. “If you have an idea that would help sustain and grow all that’s good about Bel Air, make the necessary inquiries to present your plans,” Heidenreich says. “Community involvement is what it’s all about.”
“And make sure to support the businesses in Bel Air,” adds Haney. “That’s something that everyone can do.” I95