Bel Air officials want to keep Armory but aren't sure how if should be run in the future

Bel Air town officials seemed to have reached a consensus they don’t want the popular Armory on Main Street to leave town ownership, but they are less certain about how much control they want to give up over the building’s future management.

During a retreat held at the Armory Saturday morning, the five town commissioners, department heads and other town staff spent a good two-plus hours hashing out possible strategies for the building.

Though they agreed to a person that selling the building would be unwise for all kinds of reasons, not the least being a loss of control of what everyone said is a major community asset, they were divided about what to do next.

“I looking for you to give me an idea how you want to proceed,” Town Administrator Jesse Bane, who moderated the discussion, told the group of about 18, before he broke them into four smaller groups. He set up a poster board for each group to write down pros and cons on the following future scenarios: Keep it, sell it, lease it or hire a manager.

“Whatever option we choose, it’s going to be a lot work,” Bane warned.

“We really couldn’t find any cons,” said Town Commissioner Philip Einhorn, who was a member of the group that did the “keep it” board. They had a long list of pros, and Einhorn said his group concluded the numerous current uses for the building alone would argue for keeping control of its ownership, as would having “options for the future.”

“Who knows what happens in the future?” he asked.

The Armory serves a number of functions including hosting meetings, classes, concerts, major events, church services, fundraisers for organizations and politicians, luncheons, dinners, athletic activities, police department training, fitness classes and is also home to the town’s visitors center and a number of town government offices, such as information technology and economic development, as well as being home to the Bel Air Downtown Alliance.

Just as important, several officials said, is its place as Bel Air’s designated emergency shelter. The building has two diesel generators, a full-service kitchen and rest rooms and showers.

The generators were pressed into service Friday night when the downtown area began to experience power surges because of the high winds. A concert by the Steely Dan tribute band Technicolor Motor Home had been scheduled and was sold out, according to Slate Ridge Entertainment, the promoter.

A decision was made to cut the grid power to the Armory and use strictly the generators, according to town Public Works Director Stephen Kline, and the concert went off as scheduled. The building was still on generator power during Saturday morning’s retreat.

The imposing 103-year-old building, constructed of Port Deposit granite three years before the United States entered World War II, also is expensive to maintain and operate. It loses money, which means town taxpayers in effect subsidize it.

Though town officials say the building is booked every Friday through Sunday most of the year, as well as at least some weekdays or weeknights, the Armory is expensive to maintain and operate.

According to a facts book Bane compiled for the retreat, 506 events have been booked at the Armory so far this year, compared with 500 in 2017. This year’s have projected rental of $81,000 compared with $85,000 last year.

The town reviews and often adjusts the Armory rental rates annually, but fees for town sponsored events are waived – about $15,000 annually this year and last – and nonprofits and other government events get reduced rates. Among the biggest users of the building are the school system, Central Christian Church, which holds Sunday services, and a Zumba class.

A summary of audited rental revenue versus operating expenses by fiscal year shows the Armory lost money every year from 2005 through the current fiscal year, for which a $24,000 loss is projected. The biggest loss was $106,000 in FY2017; operations were $69,000 in the red in FY2016, almost $55,000 in FY2015 and $66,000 in FY2014.

Some capital items requested for FY2019, the budget the town is compiling now, include a new gas range costing up to $4,500, window treatments ($7,300), work on the stage floor and facing ($43,000), state lighting ($56,000), stage rigging and drapery ($40,000), audio-visual system ($60,000), two high efficiency heat/AC units ($15,000) and office painting ($8,000).

“I don’t feel the group wants to sell,” said Town Commissioner Patrick Richards who spoke for the “sell it” board group.

He said they looked at selling as a way “to generate cash, but at what level” and agreed such a sale would be complex and there would be a “limited market.”

On the pro side, Richards said, the property would go back on the tax rolls and would allow the town to “mitigate risk” by no longer having to be concerned with devoting staff time to running it, as well as money to fixing things or to protect the town from liability.

But, he added, there would also be “opportunity costs,” such as a loss of control of the building and the need to find a new emergency center. And, he said, a new owner might find adaptive uses for the building that are entirely different than the current ones, such as converting it into a bed and breakfast.

Kathi Santora, who works with town government as a contractor on marketing, presented the “lease it” board group’s report, which included pros such as a guaranteed cash flow, passing on liability and freeing up personnel, and cons such as loss of control, the probable need to find new spaces for the town offices and Bel Air Downtown Alliance.

Santora said if the town leased the building it would likely cause some confusion among the public and might also lead to long-time users being forced to move elsewhere.

Town Planning Director Kevin Small said one of the major drawbacks to either selling or leasing the building would be dealing with the Maryland Historic Trust, which has control over any physical changes made to the building under the agreement that transferred ownership from the state to the town.

The most time spent was spent on discussing the “hire a manager” option and how that might work. Suggestions were made for a “hybrid” arrangement, such as contracting with a professional events management company or with a local nonprofit, like the Rockfield Manor Foundation that manages that town-owned facility.

The town has an employee who handles Armory bookings on a full-time basis and does an excellent job that “far exceeded anyone’s expectations,” Director of Administration Michael Krantz said, but Richards said they still need to consider having some person or entity with far ranging expertise in events booking and management. He said he views hiring a manager “as a subset of keeping it [the Armory].”

At the end of the discussion, participants were asked to each put a sticker on one of the four boards, and Bane, who again cautioned that nothing final was being decided that morning, other than getting “a reference point.”

“It’s been an excellent discussion,” he said.

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