Jim Fielder Aims to Take Bel Air to the Next Level
There’s a lot of buzz about Downtown Bel Air these days and with good reason. Over the past few years, popular Baltimore City restaurants and pubs have either relocated or opened outposts in Bel Air including Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub, Looney’s Pub and MaGerk’s Pub & Grille – joined by upscale eateries such as Main Street Oyster House, The Orient and Savona Fine Italian Foods. As a result, Bel Air’s Main Street has been revitalized with new shops ranging from a bridal boutique to a comic book store opening.
However, it’s always best not to rest on your laurels, as they say, and with a new leadership team including a new Town Administrator, Mayor and an Executive Director of the Downtown Bel Air Alliance having been named in the past nine months – come new ideas and renewed enthusiasm.
James D. Fielder, Jr. Ph.D., was named new Town Administrator in January. He replaced Chris Schlehr who retired and Fielder brings a wealth of experience in government, the private sector and higher education to the job. Fielder, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland and a doctorate from Michigan State University, has held senior leadership positions in the IT, accounting and financial industries, as well as at Towson University and the University of Michigan. After serving as Harford County’s economic development director, he further honed his business development skills when he was appointed by three Maryland Governors. He was appointed assistant secretary for Business Development by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in the Department of Economic and Employment Development. Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed him as acting secretary and deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, and then Gov. Robert Ehrlich, Jr. appointed him as secretary for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
“At the state level, Gov. Ehrlich asked me to head up DLLR, a department that was in rough shape … let’s put it that way … but I knew that going into the job, as I had been previously criticizing the department from the economic development side as some of the policies and practices were hurting our state. So when Gov. Ehrlich asked me to run the department, I told him that I needed two things: latitude and support – latitude to get things done that need to get done and his support to do it. And I received his support every time I needed to make changes or to get something through legislation. And we were able to accomplish so much,” Fielder says.
When asked how his experience at the state level will translate into his new role in Bel Air, Fielder says, “It’s not that different … with support, commitment and focus so much can be accomplished. I always look at the possibility for understanding what is needed and then work to improve things. In this job there is the unique opportunity to make changes first hand unlike the state bureaucracy where issues needed to be reported up several layers to get to the secretary. Now I am at a level where the rubber meets the road; I can work directly with a tremendous team and also work with the commissioners, who are focused and dedicated to improving our Town. When it all comes together, then you affect change,” he says.
Recently, as I had lunch with Fielder at Bellissimo’s restaurant in Bel Air, we had a far reaching conversation. Fielder stated that he greatly appreciated the opportunity and was energized at the chance to give back to his community where he grew up. He commented that Bel Air is in the great shape due to past leadership that has been dedicated to enhancing the Town by providing a safe and secure environment. Fielder notes that Bel Air has strong fiscal underpinnings and is known for being fiscally conservative, which has been so important during these troubled economic times. He notes further that when he took the job as Town Administrator, he knew that there was a solid foundation in place with talented, dedicated and experienced employees. “It’s great to know that when you take the time to build a vision and have a strategy that there are people in place to get things done. I am fortunate that is the legacy I have to work with. I’m getting to know the businesses to find out what can make this Town a better place.”
And as he makes the rounds getting to know the businesses, Fielder is not doing the talking … through his many career avenues in the public and private sector, he has learned the importance of asking questions and listening. “When joining any new organization, I always aim to spend as much time as possible listening. Listen to the school systems, listen to the businesses, listen to the citizens, listen to the volunteers – they know what makes their community work. Then, I can add the input from my staff, the business community and the citizenry to synergize the information that builds upon the foundation that we have in Bel Air.
“When you start a new job, you always want to initially identify the strengths and weaknesses of the organization and each employee, however, I always want to meet with the biggest critics first as they may have the greatest ideas. Once you do that, you then have to empower them to implement change,” Fielder says.
The Future Is Bright
Fielder grew up on a family dairy farm near Bel Air, graduated from Bel Air High School and is restoring Sophia’s Dairy, a historic estate that was completed in 1768. Being a Harford County native is one of the reasons that Fielder says he took the job as Town Administrator. “That’s why this job is so much fun,” he says. “Bel Air has an amazing history and there is a lot of buzz right now – what do we do to magnify it and take it to the next level? What does the community want to see from the Town? What can be done to support further job creation that provides for diverse careers? What does Bel Air need in order to be positioned for an outstanding future? Fielder is confident that with the solid foundation, the community working together, dedicated and talented employees and the large number of local volunteers, the future is bright in Bel Air.
Bel Air Mayor Robert Reier, DC, who was elected to the position of mayor of Bel Air by the town commissioners last November, echoes Fielder’s enthusiasm for the future of Bel Air. “We were in a transition period with Jim [Fielder] coming in; I am new to the job; and Erika Sturgill (executive director of Downtown Bel Air Alliance) is also new to her position. Change is inevitable, but with change comes a new perspective and moves the process in a different direction. We have a forward thinking staff and department heads here who are constantly generating new ideas to improve Bel Air,” says Dr. Reier, who owns Chiropractic Care of Bel Air.
Both Dr. Reier and Fielder are committed to the continued revitalization of Main Street in Bel Air. “The Downtown Bel Air Alliance has been very successful where some other Main Street programs have failed. You have to get buy-in from all the business and property owners from the beginning. It has to be the private sector that fuels these types of new programs, not the elected or appointed officials, because they are the ones that will be there for years to come and have the most skin in the game,” says Fielder.
Fielder says that when listening to citizens on what has been positive over the past few years, some general themes arise. “For example, the focus to improve the parks in Bel Air has been a huge effort and is greatly appreciated. Also, renovating and modernizing Main Street has been great. People loved the flower baskets downtown so we increased the number from 20 to 60 … it’s a small touch but when you add the small touches together they add up to the overall character of the community,” Fielder says. “We also have a powerful group of volunteers in Bel Air that contribute to the arts, culture, beautification projects and special events such as the Fourth of July celebration. That event is a tremendous community success, organized and run by volunteers, that started with a 6:45 a.m. flag raising, then the pancake breakfast, then children’s activities, then the parade and finally at 9:45 p.m., the fireworks. This event’s success illustrates how everyone here gets involved.”
Dr. Reier, who is a tireless advocate for healthy living for the community, is also striving for improved walkways and bikeways throughout Bel Air. “It’s a big initiative to improve bike and pedestrian paths. It would be great if people could go from home to work or downtown without the use of motorized vehicles. I’d love to see people be able to walk from The John Carroll School, for example, through downtown and connect to the MA & PA Heritage Trail all the way to Annie’s Playground,” Dr. Reier says.
One of the biggest – and possibly most challenging – initiatives that both Dr. Reier and Fielder see is the concept of “Live, Work and Play,” a concept embraced by many cities where people live, work and have fun, all in one central location, such as Downtown Bel Air.
“One reason for a buzz in Bel Air is the diversity of retail shops, offices and restaurants. Some nights I think the whole world eats out in Bel Air. And we have new shops opening – when K&B Bridals opened on Main Street, they had 400 people come to their Open House in the first four hours. Then, Collectors Corner, a comic book store, opened. These are both businesses that are fueled by young professionals and families. Along with free community events, you can really create a place where people want to be all the time,” says Fielder.
Of course, the obstacle facing Bel Air is the lack of downtown living options. “We would all like to see an increase in residential density downtown while retaining that small town feel. We’d like to work with investors to bring young professionals to live downtown,” says Dr. Reier, who envisions maybe one day Harford Community College opening a campus downtown, creating a “collegetown” atmosphere. “As a physician, I see a lot of health issues attributed to people commuting 15 hours a week.”
Fielder adds, “If we can provide the support to the community that protects our history and enhances our future we will be successful. As an example, if the community can provide townhouses or condos with Wi-Fi, a balcony and a view and it’s walkable to downtown, it can be a real catalyst to further energize Bel Air. That’s where government responsibilities should focus to support the infrastructure to the business, education, religious and non-profit community. Then simply, the government needs to get out of the way and let businesses do what they do best.” I95