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At what price should Bel Air officials strive to make Armory financially self-sufficient? [Editorial]

At what price should Bel Air officials strive to make Armory financially self-sufficient? [Editorial]
Potential actors line up outside the Bel Air Armory on June 18 for another casting call with a "popular political drama." The armory has become a popular community events venue but is also draining the finances of the Town of Bel Air, which owns the facility.. (BRIAN KRISTA | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Bel Air town officials have a financial tiger by the tail when it comes to the armory. How and when they can let go is a vexing question which has been batted about for the past two-plus years without a mutually agreeable answer.

Town officials spent the better part of two hours on July 27 discussing how to make the armory more financially self-sufficient. As noted in David Anderson's report in the Friday, July 29 edition of The Aegis, as the armory has become more and more popular for hosting a myriad of events and activities that help draw thousands of people to downtown Bel Air, it's also becoming more expensive to operate.

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"We're kind of vicariously living through the success of all the people that use the facility," Michael Krantz, Bel Air Director of Administration, said. Krantz led the recent discussion about the armory's future and its finances.

According to figures presented by Krantz, for every dollar in revenue the town received from renting the armory during the 2014-15 fiscal year (the latest for which a full audit has been performed), it paid out almost $4 in expenses. Krantz said the armory is available to various organizations at what he calls below market rates and the town never charges for a percentage of the proceeds from events staged in the armory.

From the town's perspective, it doesn't want to kill a golden egg laying goose – all those folks who come to armory events invariably will spend some money elsewhere in the town or, if not, will likely return at some point, if they enjoyed their experience in downtown Bel Air. Nobody wants to drive people away, but at what cost do you keep them coming?

Some town officials, current and former, have questioned how much a publicly owned facility like the armory should be competing with other venues in the private sector, using the current low price advantage. Town Commissioner Patrick Richards, one such critic, said he didn't want to "cannibalize" other downtown venues that book music acts, for instance, and he previously questioned the wisdom of going ahead with the armory marketplace project involving the back garages without a solid financial plan. (In the end, he supported that project.)

What town officials may be overlooking is how much the armory enhances the downtown experience for visitors and business owners alike, rather than competing with the latter. Where else, for instance, would the annual Bel Air Gun Show sponsored by the local Izaak Walton League chapter go other than the armory? The same could be said about the "House of Cards" open casting calls, or the Chocolate and Candy Festival, or the Festival of Trees or other small events hosted at the armory? Would they go out of town? That's unlikely. There's a reason why they choose the armory, and it goes beyond its low cost. It is, to borrow a phrase, in the heart of Bel Air, in the heart of Harford County.

Town officials do indeed need to focus on a reasonable way to make the armory more financially self-sufficient. But they don't need to kill the goose in the process, just find a way to moderate its diet. Otherwise, it could eventually become a white elephant.

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