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Bel Air – An Emerging Renaissance
Town Aims to Create More Vibrant Dining, Nightlife and Arts Scene

December 2016

The Town of Bel Air is preparing to create a “new urbanism” combining arts, culture and nightlife with existing business and government, in response to a comprehensive market study that identified growth opportunities for the town. The study, initiated by the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, was the first step in an effort to create a strategic growth plan for the town and was made possible by a 2015 Tourism grant from Harford County’s Glassman administration. The Alliance was one of 24 organizations to receive this competitive grant.

Harford Artists ’ Association Gallery Ribbon cutting at the Armory Marketplace, located in the newly refurbished garages behind the Armory on Main Street. (Front) Susan Burdette, Mayor of Bel A ir, and Patricia Stoneseifer, Board member of Harford Artists Association. (Back) Pam Burton, HAA President, Louanne Van Fossen, Annabelle Thurlow, all HAA board members. Photo by Fred S. Brundick.

Harford Artists Association Gallery Ribbon cutting at the Armory Marketplace, located in the newly refurbished garages behind the Armory on Main Street. (Front) Susan Burdette, Mayor of Bel Air, and Patricia Stoneseifer, Board member of Harford Artists Association. (Back) Pam Burton, HAA President, Louanne Van Fossen, Annabelle Thurlow, all HAA board members. Photo by Fred S. Brundick.

“We are proud to support plans for job creation and business expansion that will add to the charm and vibrancy of Bel Air, attracting new visitors and residents of all ages,” says County Executive Barry Glassman. “My Office of Economic Development will continue working with the Town of Bel Air and the Bel Air Downtown Alliance to achieve these mutual goals.”

Christine McPherson, executive director, and Craig Ward, president of the Board of Directors of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, says the Alliance and the Harford County Office of Economic Development share a common goal to support growth that will enhance local business activities. “The study identified tangible aspects that can reinforce placemaking efforts to not only revitalize but also sustain the downtown district and attract new consumers,” adds Harford County Economic Development Director Karen Holt.

McPherson says Camoin Associates, a professional market research firm, was selected to complete the comprehensive market study. The firm examined the town’s demographics, mission statement and five-year plan, among other things. Their conclusive market study report identified priority projects throughout the town, with many specific to downtown. It included a recommendation that the town embrace its Arts & Entertainment District designation, and include theater, museums and restaurants in its composition.

The town has embraced the study results by forming a collaborative team that will focus on growth recommendations. The team includes the Harford County Office of Economic Development, the Town of Bel Air’s Economic Development Office, the Bel Air Downtown Alliance and the Economic Community Development Committee, which consists of volunteers appointed by the town commissioners.

Holt adds, “We are excited about the prospects this study identified as well as the collaboration of these various entities that will make this vision a reality. The potential growth opportunities will have a far-reaching impact for the region.”

Trish Heidenreich, Director of Economic Development for the Town of Bel Air, says similar market studies had proven successful in 1992, 2000 and 2008. “Demographics change over time, and it was time to look at them again,” she notes. “Towns are taking a greater interest in what is going to be built, not just sitting back and waiting for businesses to come to them.”

Heidenreich says the team will devise a plan by examining the mix of businesses already in town and those in the greater Baltimore area that might be feasible here. “We will have information and plans for available property and be able to match prospects with the best fit,” she explains.

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South Main Street in Bel Air. Photo by Jen Snyder Photography.

McPherson emphasized that they are interested in businesses that will add to the eclectic mix of the town. “We want to set people up for success. Second locations of successful businesses, companies that will make living and working here more convenient, and new companies are all great prospects,” she says. “Mixed-use facilities are the trend in economic development on Main Streets.” She explained that as residents grow up and leave Bel Air for college, then get jobs and start families, they tend to move back to Bel Air. They want the arts, entertainment and restaurant experiences of a bigger city, but the convenience and safety of a smaller town. They want a walkable community.

“We have engaged property owners and stake holders with this information in a series of business summits, to get them on board and get their ideas,” McPherson says. She noted that the response has been very positive.

“We want to bring more residential and mixed-use complexes to the town. The economic development impact of a resident is four to five times that of an employee,” Ward states. To encourage more people to live within the town limits, the town must have an infrastructure that is attractive to the demographics, as well as housing availability. The study recommended Bond Street as an opportunity for multifamily residential buildings of up to four stories, with ground floor uses for retail and entertainment. It also identified three underutilized properties in town that are owned by the county. They are the parking lot on the corner of Route 22 and Main Street, also known as the “Tire Lot;” the site of the former Health Department on Hayes Street; and the Mary Risteau parking lot on Thomas and Bond Streets. The Glassman administration has already prioritized the public-private use of the Tire Lot and is requesting Expressions of Interest from private developers for the property through Jan. 19, 2017.


Artist’s rendering of how the Tire Lot could be developed, courtesy of Camoin Associates.

Artist renderings for the Tire Lot and Bond Street, as well as other opportunities, are included in the study. The vision for the Tire Lot includes two levels of retail and parking and three levels of residential, and is intended to set the stage for other mixed-use properties in town. Main Street will serve as a pedestrian walkway from the Tire Lot complex to the Bel Air Armory, connecting the arts, culture and residential areas, and beginning to blend the north and south ends of Main Street. The goal, McPherson says, is to get a similar look to that of the newer buildings south of the courthouse, giving the town a quaint, old-world feeling. The planned connection of the Ma & Pa Trail, made possible by easements purchased recently by the Glassman administration and the Town of Bel Air, will enhance the town’s walkability, provide access to recreational activities and continue the redevelopment infill of North Main Street.

Study analyses showed “significant sales leakage” out of the region, meaning consumers are going outside of Bel Air for goods and services. The greatest potential to recapture this “leakage” is restaurant business, with greater Bel Air having the ability to sustain up to 12 additional full-service restaurants. According to the study, “A critical mass of restaurants could turn downtown into an entertainment destination that would attract additional nightlife and retail establishments.”

The other retail categories with the greatest potential for new businesses are clothing stores, unique food services like catering and specialty grocery and miscellaneous store retailers. In addition, it was estimated that the Town of Bel Air can sustain 50 percent more than the national average on recreation and entertainment businesses. A key site for these activities is the Armory complex. Currently, the facility hosts several well-known events ranging from the Chocolate Festival and the Holiday Festival of Trees to the Gun Show and the Film Festival, and serves as a center for exercise classes and weekly church services. The Armory also houses the Visitors’ Center for the Town of Bel Air. “With the upgrading of the adjacent park and the renovated rear garage spaces, the Armory has the potential to grow into a complex with a combination of arts, entertainment, community events and business activities that is available 365 days a year,” says Jesse Bane, Administrator for the Town of Bel Air.

Study findings support that Bel Air requires a strong and recognizable brand, which will help attract visitors, businesses, and residents. “We are currently devising a strategy to better market the town, including an enhanced website and social media platform,” Ward says. “This will allow us to decrease the clutter and increase the exposure.”

For now, the implementation phase has begun, with some of the most talented and creative minds in the county. Holt says, “Harford County values its partnerships with municipalities, and we are confident that the solid leadership of this collaboration will guide the project to provide residents and visitors alike with a holistic living, shopping, and entertainment experience for many years to come.” I95