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Loving Life Downtown

August 2014

Erika Sturgill, Executive Director, Bel Air Downtown Alliance

The brilliant writer Thomas Wolfe penned a  novel that was published posthumously in  1940 titled “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Well, don’t tell that to Erika (Quesenbery) Sturgill, executive director of  the Bel Air Downtown Alliance.

“I grew up in Fallston, and my family’s roots date back to the 1800s in this area. My dad still lives in the same house he was born in, and now I work in the Armory where he served in the National Guard. Apparently, you can go home again,” says Sturgill, whose tenure as executive director began on March 17. “I chose the date so that I could always remember when my first day was – St. Patrick’s Day. Her start date was also the day before the “Best of Harford” Awards where the Alliance’s “Maryland State BBQ Bash” was honored as the best event in Harford County. “The timing was nice as the ‘Best of Harford’ event allowed me to meet everyone while honoring all the hard work done by Scott Walker.” Walker served as executive director for 4 ½ years. “I got to work with Scott for two weeks, and we have a great camaraderie. I can still call him if I need to for advice,” says Sturgill, who lives in Havre de Grace.

Sturgill’s background includes economic development, heritage tourism, cultural arts promotion and grant administration. She worked as the marketing director for the Cecil County Office of Economic Development, has done extensive grant writing for various non-profits and is the author of two published books. “When I heard about the job opening, I was happy with the grant writing work I was doing, but I’ve always loved the Main Street program. (The Bel Air Downtown Alliance is under the auspices of Main Street Maryland and the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.) So, I spent a weekend in Bel Air walking around, checking out the shops and talking to people. That weekend rekindled my love for Bel Air.”

“Based on her work history and knowledge of the area, as well as her high level of professionalism and innovative ideas, I am convinced Erika is what our organization needs to move us in a direction of growth, build relationships in the local community and advance the Bel Air Downtown Alliance’s objective of enhancing and preserving downtown Bel Air’s appearance, traditions, community identity, cultural arts and economic vitality,” said Tianna Alves-VanSpriell, president of the board of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, in a release announcing Sturgill’s hiring.

Downtown Bel Air is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Downtown Bel Air is bustling with shops and restaurants.

Sturgill says that one of the main draws for her to the job was Bel Air’s historic nature. “Bel Air still has a heart and charming downtown with the old courthouse, the fountain, a classic hardware store and the clock that chimes every hour. However, there are modern stores, great restaurants, 4,600 parking spaces and an improved Main Street appearance. When I was in high school, the only things there were to do was to go to the Harford Mall and the Bel Air Plaza. Now downtown is bustling with families, kids and young adults. Sometimes I like to just park in the downtown garage and walk to work so that I can see what’s going on with the business owners and talk to the community. While Bel Air holds onto the past, there is not a fear of change here,” she says.

Drawing People Downtown
The non-profit Bel Air Downtown Alliance, like all Main Street programs, is constructed of four pillars – Design, Organization, Promotions and Economic Restructuring. Each area has a committee assigned to it, and while all four are constantly busy, the Promotions committee is especially vibrant. “We do 42 events a year … not that many people are aware of that,” Sturgill notes. Events range from “Girls Night Out,” an event where shops stay open late, to free outdoor movies at Shamrock Park, “First Fridays” block parties and the BBQ Bash on Aug. 8-9.

“Our events are a great way to bring people downtown. Once they are there, they will grab dinner and maybe a cocktail after the event is over,” says Sturgill. “Recently we showed the movie ‘Frozen,’ and we had 700 people break into song with ‘Let It Go.’ Recently the Bel Air Police held a camp at the Armory for kids who are interested in law enforcement.” Sturgill recalls her first event as executive director was the First Fridays event in July. “I was nervous obviously and was wondering how these big events happen. We had such amazing volunteers show up – Looneys Pub sent guys over to check people’s IDs, the Rotary sent people, and the Marine Corps League of Harford County helped, too. People in Bel Air just come out of the woodwork to help and have amazing ideas. You don’t even have to solicit volunteers; the enthusiasm in Bel Air is mind boggling.”

Erika Sturgill spends a lot of time in downtown shops and restaurants, listening to business owners.

Erika Sturgill spends a lot of time in downtown shops and restaurants, listening to business owners.

A Vision for the Future
Although only five months into the job as executive director, Sturgill already has some ideas on how to continue Bel Air’s forward momentum. Her passion for Bel Air is something she wears on her sleeve; her enthusiasm is contagious. “I want to create revenue coffers for economic development. The State has some great programs for us to tap into and some grants that would help us with economic restructuring and bring more businesses downtown. Businesses are the livelihood of Bel Air,” says Sturgill.

She says she would also like to expand outdoor art downtown. “For example, bike racks are great, but by design they are ugly. I’d like to work with metal artisans to create bike racks downtown that are also works of art. I would also love to use the heart icon all through downtown to promote businesses. For example, we could have a miniature heart by a coffee shop, saying, ‘Congratulations, you walked a mile today. Treat yourself to a latte inside.’ We have a lot of artists in Bel Air with a thriving art scene, and I’d like to expand those opportunities by renovating spaces for affordable art studio space.” Sturgill adds that she also wants to encourage the development of commercial space downtown that would have retail on the ground floor and residential space above.

 Sturgill also recognizes the importance of improvements to the community and its residents that are smaller in scale. “I just finished writing a grant in order to have free community workshops. Topics could be growing green products, canning, how to do composting at your home, making chemical-free cleaning products, etc. We have the resources in our community – The Mill, for example – to have local people teach these types of classes that would benefit the community,” she says.

Many of her ideas, she says, come from simply walking around downtown or everyday life. “I got a call from someone asking for directions to the parking lots. It was hard to describe to her where to go, so I put all the parking lots on the app Foursquare, so people could see on their smartphone where to park,” Sturgill says.

Sturgill says that one of the perks of her new job is to remind her how wonderful Downtown Bel Air is. “When you live somewhere for a while, you tend to take it for granted. The other day, a group stopped by the Armory unannounced. So, I decided to take them on an impromptu walking tour all around downtown and through the gardens at the Armory and Shamrock Park. They loved Bel Air, and it reminded me what a special place it is. I think every once in a while we need to take a second and pat ourselves on the back and say, ‘Well done, Bel Air.’” I95