My girlfriend was in town over the weekend, and as I usually do when she is visiting from North Carolina, I took her out to dinner.

We went to The Orient Restaurant downtown on Main Street in Bel Air for Chinese food Friday evening. It was around 7 p.m. and every table was filled.

We, another couple and a family of four had to wait until we got seated. As we ate, my girlfriend remarked that the line of people waiting for a table had grown since we sat down; I turned around and saw the line was almost to the entrance of the restaurant.

We had a great meal, and as we were walking back to the car, I saw a mother and her children walking toward a shop that was still open.


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This is what made me fall in love with Bel Air almost immediately, a downtown that is thriving, even though the core of the town is surrounded by massive shopping centers, fast-food restaurants and big-box retail stores that are a short drive for people who live in town and those who live in one of the many subdivisions that make up greater Bel Air, Forest Hill and Abingdon.

I came to Harford County from a community in Eastern North Carolina that has been decimated by years of industrial job losses.

The section of Queen Street running north-south through downtown Kinston was called "The Magic Mile" during the boom years of the 1950s and '60s.

It was the place to go for families who wanted to patronize the downtown department stores, restaurants and drug stores/lunch counters.

People still have street signs with the words "Magic Mile" on them.

One building on a downtown side street started out as a drive-through drug store, where customers could literally drive through a door that is about the size of a bay door for a loading dock or a fire station, sidle up to the counter and pick up prescriptions.

That building is used today as a microbrewery, and that brewery has been the catalyst for downtown revival driven by private investment.

Several new restaurants and an art gallery have opened on that side street, but the main drag still needs a lot of attention.

A huge mall opened on the city's east-west thoroughfare, West Vernon Avenue, during the late 1960s, which began drawing shoppers away from downtown.

The Walmart that opened during the 1990s off Vernon Avenue on the west edge of town, where Vernon turns into U.S. 70, has since been killing the mall, which was the place to be if you were a teenager in Kinston during the '80s and '90s.

Downtown Kinston has taken a beating over the decades, but it is not out of the fight yet; there is a revamped farmer's market, a summer concert series in the nearby city park, the aforementioned brewery that has been recognized across the state and is getting national attention, the handful of restaurants and a museum built to showcase the remains of a Confederate ironclad that was built in and around the city during the Civil War.

There are also a few stores that have been part of Queen Street for more than 100 years, and they are holding on.

It will take significant private investment, businesses staying open during the evening, the arrival of thousands of living-wage jobs and improvements in public safety, to really turn downtown Kinston around, however.

Bel Air and Harford County benefit by being close to Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, not to mention a little post called Aberdeen Proving Ground, one of the largest employers in the state.

Bel Air town officials and downtown merchants work together well, and while families go to the edge of town to do large-scale retail shopping at stores such as Kohl's or Target, there is still a healthy mix of bars, restaurants, workout studios, boutiques, even a comic book store, to make downtown viable.

The end result is, restaurants and bars are packed on a Friday evening, and a mother can take her children shopping on Main Street.

It's what every small community across the USA should be.