In 2015, the Bel Air Armory will celebrate its 100th Anniversary with yet another innovation – Bel Air Armory Marketplace. This project is part of the amazing transformation of the property from a National Guard facility to a regional community center, providing a visitors center, meeting rooms, the Economic Development Department and Downtown Alliance offices, recreational and auditorium space for individual groups, and events like the annual Chocolate Festival, the Festival of Trees, the Bel Air Gun Show, concerts, plays, dances, receptions and more. To this mix, with the help of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Community Legacy grant program, the Town will add a truly unique retail incubator facility directly behind the Armory in the old garage property. The Marketplace will include a year-round, indoor Farmers Market and three to four small retail spaces for start-up businesses. These spaces will help establish new entrepreneurs while providing nearby assistance of the Economic Development office and the Bel Air Downtown Alliance staff to ensure the success of these new ventures.
In The Beginning
The Armory’s Main Street location began as an empty lot, a training ground for the local militia. As far back as the Spanish American War, local soldiers gathered here and marched to the Ma & Pa railway station on North Main Street to be carried off to war. In 1915, John B. Hamme won an architectural competition to design the existing building, which served Company D of the Maryland National Guard until its transfer to the Town of Bel Air in 2011. The building boasted a Port Deposit granite façade with limestone trim. Possibly more amazing to those in the construction industry today, is the fact that the builder began the project in August 1915 and completed the new building by October 1915.
Company D at the time was a cavalry unit, so horses were kept on site and the basement was used as a Farrier shop. From the beginning, the building was more than a military property. It quickly became the center of community activities during World War I with local Red Cross and ladies auxiliaries working feverishly to roll bandages, prepare packages for local soldiers, and meet the needs of volunteers and draftees. With the end of the war, the National Guard shared its facility by hosting graduations, weekly talent shows, movies and even boxing matches. World War II brought along the same activity with Civil Defense and citizen volunteers playing a major role in the War effort at the Armory.
Over time the building served as the local Motor Vehicle Administration testing center – woe to those who missed the stop sign on Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as a major part of the Parks and Recreation programs for Bel Air. As military technology changed, so did the mission of Company D. The cavalry unit became a helicopter unit and the facility lacked some requirements for its new mission. The majority of the Guard moved to a more modern site at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the state looked at repurposing the building, providing the perfect opportunity for the Town of Bel Air to implement its Main Street program by locating a community center in the heart of Downtown Bel Air.
A Daunting Task Awaited
In 2006, the state agreed to lease the building and grounds to the town for five years before transferring ownership. This allowed time to repurpose the building and move the final National Guard offices and equipment to a new location. Immediately, the Town began restoration work with major assistance from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Natural Resources. At times this was overwhelming. The building needed major improvements to the roof, heating and air conditioning, and plumbing. Every room needed attention, as did the exterior of the building, the outbuildings and grounds. With the help of a committee led by then Town Administrator Christopher G. Schlehr and the engineering firm of Frederick Ward Associates, the town developed a multi-year project plan.
The first phase of the project dealt with the building deficiencies and developed office and meeting space for the Economic Development Department, the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, the building manager and a Visitors Center, while upgrading the auditorium, the commercial kitchen, the restrooms and a classroom area.
Almost immediately the Armory became the center for activity in downtown. With this done, the Town recognized the opportunity to use the grassy area next to the building as a demonstration area for stormwater management techniques while providing a significant park amenity. The resulting garden area is a perfect place to rest, lunch or just contemplate nature. It draws workers and visitors regularly and creates an ambiance long missing from the downtown. The stage area provides an ideal location for small events, puppet shows, chess tournaments and the like. Now, the last phase of the building reconstruction is ready to begin.
Marketplace To Open
The Armory Committee recognized that the garage area had great potential to draw visitors and customers to the downtown area, but could also be perceived as an obstacle, blocking the commercial area from the neighborhoods and the adjoining alley areas. It lacked a connection to parking facilities and would need a major draw to bring customers to an area generally seen as a back street area. The possibilities far outweighed the negatives, however. Discussions with adjoining property owners led to the possibility of connecting the Town’s Pennsylvania Avenue parking lot and the Town’s multi-level garage to the Marketplace with an upgraded alley and walkway. The Committee then developed the idea of accommodating a long needed location for a year-round Farmers Market, which could create the necessary draw based on the market’s 38-year history in Bel Air. The Market would take up about a third of the garage area leaving the remainder open for alternative uses, such as shops, an art gallery or other small retail businesses. The Saturday outdoor market would continue in its current location as always but this market would act as an adjunct facility.
For many years, the Economic Development Department listened to new entrepreneurs with wonderful business ideas, but little experience or capital and recognized the potential if an inexpensive place could be found to allow these start up operations to test their products. The Armory garages seemed an ideal location, as they would come with the added benefit of nearby assistance from the economic development staff and the Bel Air Downtown Alliance staff.
In October, the Town will begin physical redevelopment of the garages. The exterior will be painted and folding glass entry walls will be added to create a market atmosphere allowing the storefronts to be opened to the adjoining courtyard area. Plumbing, heating and updated electrical systems will be added to the units. The new businesses will be responsible for finishing the space to meet their needs.
The final phase of the Armory project is planned for next spring. This will include completion of a green roof on the garages and an upgrade of the parking area to match the park area paving, landscaping and signage. If all goes as planned, the restoration and redevelopment of this unique part of the community’s history and future will be ready for its 100th Anniversary on Oct. 15, 2015.
For more information about the storefront units, contact the Bel Air Economic Development office at 410-879-2012 or 410-838-0584. I95