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Over mayor's skepticism, Bel Air armory marketplace project continues

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.

Flexible uses

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.

Commissioner Edward Hopkins asked if the town might not be "breaking new ground, leading the charge" with the project, and Heidenreich replied that in terms of possibly offering business incubator space, "for Maryland we are."

Town Administrator James Fielder Jr., who has a background in economic development and holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, noted that business incubators are most commonly associated with research universities, but the concept might work in town, if Bel Air can attract some in the first place and then keep them in town if they begin to blossom.

Reier, however, was skeptical of the whole plan, warning the town could potentially be getting into a situation "fraught with problems."

"We have to realize this is going to add costs to the town, no ifs, ands or buts about it," he said.

No matter what form the project takes, Reier said, the town would be competing with the private sector, nor could he see the farmers wanting their well-established market moved to a smaller and more out-of-the-way space and, on top of everything else, the town would have to manage the facility. "You can kind of see the dominoes falling," he said.

More positive

The four other town commissioners, however, took a more positive view.

Burdette said she could see all kinds of potential uses that would benefit the community from the farmer's market, to arts and craft spaces to small shops run by senior citizens.

"I see this as government providing a space for their community," she said. "It's their building."

Commissioner Robert Preston was equally enthusiastic, noting the whole armory property has been "tremendous for the town.

"It's not like sinking a lot of money into an unknown," said Preston, adding the benefit would be providing more foot traffic to benefit other businesses in town, especially along Main Street, while the main drawback would be if the armory marketplace spaces would somehow contribute to more vacancies.

"The worst case we could just turn it back to storage," he added.

"I'm enthused with the project; we should at least give it a try," Hopkins said, adding he did not see future uses for the space creating a competitive disadvantage for existing businesses. "I'm willing to take a shot," he added.

Noting he was outnumbered, Reier said he would still raise the "voice of pessimism" by cautioning about the potential negative impacts to the town's budget, while agreeing to move forward "and see where this takes us."

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