Bel Air’s Main Street was packed with visitors Saturday as people patronized multiple shops for Small Business Saturday and checked out holiday decorations at the 12 annual Festival of Trees at the Bel Air Armory.
Bel Air resident Mary Chance and her daughter, Heather Krout, were among the crowds downtown.
“It's nice to see Main Street so busy,” Chance, who worked for the Harford County government for 28 years and was director of administration under County Executive David Craig, said. “There are literally hundreds of people walking up and down [the street].”
Chance, who now works for the Jones Junction auto dealership, described Bel Air as “small town USA.”
Businesses in Bel Air and other downtown areas in Maryland and across the country were open for shoppers who wanted to support a locally-owned enterprise.
Small Business Saturday was launched by American Express in 2010 to encourage Americans to support their local businesses as the country was still reeling from the Great Recession, according to the American Express website. The event is held on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Chance and her daughter came to downtown Bel Air to visit the Tiger Lilly boutique and a new home decor store, The Nest on Main.
“I’m a small business owner myself, so I know that it goes a long way,” Krout, an independent stylist with the Stella & Dot jewelry company, said of Small Business Saturday.
The Julie Ellyn Designs: Handmade on Main shop was filled with customers checking out the handmade jewelry made by owner Julie Ter Borg and other artisans. Her jewelry has been featured in television shows such as “The Vampire Diaries” on The CW network and “Law & Order” on NBC.
“It’s a hometown Etsy,” Ter Borg said, referring to the online marketplace where people can sell their handmade crafts. “It's a perfect place for people who make things to display their artwork.”
Ter Borg’s dog, Charlie, was a hit with visitors, too. He wore a blue Small Business Saturday bandanna as people petted him.
Ter Borg runs the store with her parents, husband and two daughters.
“We have our wonderful customer base, and then we've seen a lot of new faces as well,” she said.
Ter Borg said Charlie, who has become a mascot for her store and the town, was adopted from the House of Hope Animal Rescue in Cecil County.
“He is definitely a great ambassador,” she said.
Ter Borg praised the community for supporting her shop, which opened last October.
“It's been absolutely heartwarming how people come out to support small businesses,” she said of the activity Saturday. “Bel Air is so community driven; I'm thrilled with the support that we've received.”
A number of families could be seen walking along Main Street.
Kris Opulencia, of Forest Hill, was out with her husband, Hector, and their daughters, 14-year-old Jules and 11-year-old Chloe.
“We wanted to come out today,” Opulencia said. “It's probably busier than I've ever seen it before, which is a good thing.”
She said her family does not regularly shop in downtown Bel Air — they mix locally-owned shops with big-box stores and online retailers.
“It's nice to get everybody out together to walk down Main Street,” she said.
StaleFish Board Co, home of skateboards, snowboards, surfboards and associated equipment and accessories, was packed with shoppers.
Owner Mel Machovec could be seen at the checkout counter helping customers.
“It's really cool to see that so many people came out,” Rowan Heeg, an assistant manager, said.
Heeg, who has worked at StaleFish for four years, said Small Business Saturday is “hands down, the biggest day of the year” for the store.
Heeg said downtown Bel Air sometimes seems like a “ghost town” during the week, but the heavy foot traffic Saturday created “that Fell’s Point kind of vibe,” making the Harford County seat resemble one of Baltimore’s premier destinations.
He said people can purchase much of what they see at StaleFish from online retailers, but they don’t get same connection as they would by visiting the store.
“[You] get a personal connection and have some laughs, have a good time,” Heeg said. “You don't get that over the phone or over a computer.”
Festival of Trees
Tim Doolittle made the winning bid Saturday on on a Christmas tree decorated with tributes to first responders, a tree that would be a gift for his daughter who works in the animal control section of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.
“She loves animals, loves her job,” Doolittle, a resident of Bel Air who made the winning bid of $200, said.
He was one of many people who bid on and purchased Christmas trees, wreaths and gingerbread houses — all decorated with a different theme — during Festival of Trees.
The festival, which is put on by the Chesapeake Cancer Alliance, ran Friday and Saturday.
Visitors could bid on the items, which had been donated by individuals, organizations or businesses, through a silent auction that ended at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Proceeds support the Cancer LifeNet program at the Patricia D. and M. Scot Kaufman Cancer Center at University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.
“Today has been a very good, steady flow of people,” festival chairperson Pam Carpenter, a volunteer with Chesapeake Cancer Alliance, said Saturday afternoon.
She estimated 600 to 700 people attended the festival’s opening night Friday.
Visitors could view the trees, wreaths and gingerbread houses and rate them for different ribbons, such as first place, second place, most creative, most original and star of the festival.
“We have not done that for years, and we wanted to bring that back,” Carpenter said.
Small Business Saturday helped drive attendance the next day, according to Carpenter.
“We’re doing exceptionally well,” she said.
Doolittle said the Festival of Trees is especially meaningful to him because his son, Matthew, died of cancer in 1986 at age 11.
His wife, Phyllis, also bought a Frosty the Snowman themed-tree that had been donated by the Bel Air High School Retired Ladies. Carpenter said the group is made up of retired Bel Air High teachers.
Doolittle said he thinks his daughter would appreciate a tree to salute first responders, especially after the deaths of two Sheriff’s Office deputies in early 2016.
Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey and Deputy First Class Mark Logsdon were gunned down on Feb. 10, 2016 in Abingdon, the first Harford deputies to be murdered in the line of duty since Constable Frank Bateman was killed in the 1890s.
Doolittle, an Army veteran, said he has “great admiration” for police, firefighters and EMS workers, plus the military.
The Community Heroes tree Doolittle purchased was donated by Bel Air Women of the Moose Chapter 1469. That chapter is affiliated with the Bel Air Moose Lodge 1952, part of the Loyal Order of Moose fraternal and community service organization.
“I can take it to [my daughter] and say, ‘Merry Christmas!’” Doolittle told Phyllis Pahutski, of Abingdon, as they and their respective spouses sat and relaxed at a table toward the end of the festival.
Pahutski, who attended with her husband, Tom, said she bought a tree donated by Smith’s Chapel United Methodist Church. She said last year’s Christmas tree, an artificial tree, fell apart, so “this year we got up early to get a nice tree” at the festival.
“We both think this is a real good cause, a wonderful cause,” Pahutski said.
The trees and wreaths took up the center of the Armory gymnasium floor, and vendors were along the walls of the facility. A children’s craft area was in a corner near the gym entrance.
Visitors could check out gingerbread houses in a tent in the adjacent Frederick Ward Park.
Festival organizers started using the tent in 2015. Carpenter said that creates more space to see the gingerbread houses, as they are not competing with other attractions in the Armory.
“You can really, really see the handiwork on them,” Carpenter said.
Erin Wyatt, of Belcamp, explored the festival with her three children — Gisele, 9, Isaac, 6, Israel, 4.
Wyatt, a first-time visitor, said the festival helped her family “get into the holiday spirit.”
“This is nice,” she said. “The trees are beautiful, and the kids, of course, like the face painting and making the gingerbread houses.”
“I think it’s cool,” Gisele, who had a candy cane on her cheek, said of face painting.
Kristen Almes, of Abingdon, visited with her son, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. She visits the festival every year, and the former Girl Scout assistant troop leader said her Scouts have made trees to donate in years past.
“Chesapeake Cancer Alliance is a great thing to be raising money for,” Almes said.
She is concerned the festival has been cut from three days to two days, as the festival usually goes through Sunday.
Almes fears festival organizers are struggling to compete with the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Festival of Trees scheduled for the same weekend at the state fairgrounds in Timonium.
“We should be supporting our community,” she said. “I don't want to drive out to Timonium, where everyone in the state of Maryland is going to be.”
Carpenter, the festival chair, stressed the Harford County event is here to stay. Organizers shifted the schedule so the public could check out the trees Friday and Saturday — rather than the traditional private, ticketed event Friday night — and festival workers could be off Sunday, she said.
“We just decided to let out workers have Sunday off because it is a holiday weekend,” Carpenter said.
Traci Huebschman, of Bel Air, and Lauren Bocklage, of Edgewood, learned about the festival through Facebook.
“I really like all the Christmas trees, seeing everyone's imagination,” Bocklage said.
The pair also enjoyed downtown Bel Air with its Small Business Saturday crowds. They had lunch at Sean Bolan’s Irish Pub between festival visits.
“We had a great day, nice weather — it's a perfect day for the small businesses and this [festival],” Bocklage said.