Bel Air's town commissioners and staff spent two hours last week discussing the future of the armory marketplace project and, despite strong reservations from Mayor Robert Reier, they decided to move ahead with converting the Bel Air Reckord Armory's rear garages to commercial space.
Though the exact direction of the project remains to be determined, town officials did agree during a June 3 work session that they would solicit proposals to turn the garage area into small retail/commercial spaces around a center courtyard, a project that is likely to end up costing more than $900,000.
Much of the discussion at the work session centered on what the area would be used for once it has been renovated, and the group left the meeting without coming to a final consensus.
Economic Development Director Trish Heidenreich explained the original thought was to turn the garages into retail space for a farmers market, in part because a $277,000 state grant the town received in 2004 to develop a permanent farmer's market off Thomas and Bond streets was later transferred the armory redevelopment when the market plan stalled.
Over the past several years, however, the thinking has evolved to consider other uses for the back side of the armory, such as incubator spaces for small businesses, artist galleries and permanent retail.
Heidenreich noted the town's options of how to proceed with the project are "flexible," but she conceded there has been no clear consensus what the ultimate use should be.
Heidenreich said other town officials have expressed concerns that some uses for a low-cost, town supported retail complex might "cannibalize existing businesses," while no matter what form the future use of the space may take, the town would also have to address what to do with everything being stored in the garages.
Not vacant now
"The garages are by no means vacant," Public Works Director Randy Robertson said, noting, as did several others present, that they are full of equipment and other town belongings.
The town received subsequent grants of $175,000 in 2012 and $150,000 in 2013 to be used on what Heidenreich said would be Phase II, to upgrade the site's infrastructure, and Phase III, to renovate the L-shaped building's interior and exterior and chop it up into half a dozen spaces of about 500 square feet each. Those phases were delayed, she explained, to see if the work could be combined to save some money and also because there has been no final decision about the use of the site.
Heidenreich also discussed Phase IV which would include exterior upgrades to the site, such as fencing, walkways, lighting and landscaping. Based on a estimate of $300,000 for Phase VI, the total project cost would end up somewhere in the $800,000 to $900,000 range, including contingencies.
Town Commissioner Patrick Richards worked up a detailed spreadsheet for what the town might reasonably expect in terms of rent and expenses for the garages chopped into either retail or incubator spaces, the latter where start-up businesses begin operating before they bring in revenue and can attract investment. Essentially, his research concluded, the town would lose money, albeit modest amounts.
"The vacancy factor is the biggest risk in my mind," he said.
But also Richards said he would also support moving forward, because "it could be a great project for the town."
Planning Director Kevin Small then explained how Frederick Ward Park on the south side of the armory grounds, which was built with state open space grant funds, was designed to eventually attract people from Main Street to the back of the armory.
Small showed schematic drawings that would incorporate the rehabilitated garage area to help promote "more activity" along Burns Alley, which runs parallel to Main Street and has long been the back alley of the downtown retail district. He said there is a hope that eventually more retail could develop along Burns.
He also said he envisions the garages being "very flexible space, not pigeonholed into a single use."
"The state has been quite strong about getting this project done," Heidenreich said.
"A lot of people are very interested in how this has been going," Town Commissioner Susan Burdette added.