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A victim of its own success, what does the future hold for the Bel Air Armory?

The Bel Air Armory is a popular place for community events, socials and athletic activities, so much so that the building is seldom idle. But it also costs money to maintain and operate and usage fees don't cover those costs. Town officials are discussing how to at least break even.

With the recent renovation of three garages behind the Bel Air Armory, giving the town more space for community organizations to rent or hold events, Bel Air leaders must determine how the complex will be used in the future and how to raise more revenue from it.

In one sense, the armory is a victim of its own success.

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The town owns the armory, and it loses money each year on the facility despite heavy community use, Michael Krantz, Bel Air's director of administration, told the town commissioners during a work session Tuesday afternoon.

They met inside one of the three refurbished garage units that make up the Armory Marketplace, a project that was mainly funded through state grants.

"We're kind of vicariously living through the success of all the people that use the facility," Krantz said.

The town leased the Armory from the state until 2004, when it took over the ownership. Krantz presented figures dating to fiscal 2005 that showed revenues covering a fraction of annual expenses.

The town took in $82,235 in revenue from the armory during fiscal 2015, compared to $316,563 in expenses that include the cost of maintaining a facility built in 1915.

The North Main Street facility is often booked for evening and weekend events, such as dances, social gatherings and athletic activities in the building's main area, which has a stage and doubles as a gymnasium.

The Bel Air Downtown Alliance and the town's Department of Economic Development have offices on the second floor, and students in Harford County Public Schools' Future Link program use the basement classrooms. The town maintains a small visitors center just inside the main entrance.

White Marsh-based Central Christian Church holds Sunday services there and stores materials in a basement room. The first-floor gymnasium becomes a venue for Zumba exercise classes several evenings a week.

The gym is also a venue for annual events that draw thousands of people, such as the Bel Air Gun Show, Chocolate and Candy Festival, Film Festival and the Festival of Trees and also has been used for "House of Cards" open casting calls the past four years, which have brought thousands of people to the town.

Krantz noted the town charges well below market rates to use the facility, and it does not take a portion of event proceeds.

Some of Tuesday's discussion centered around how to raise more money through events, and if that means hosting more events that are profitable and promote economic development, rather than events with a less quantifiable community benefit.

"You can't put a dollar value on keeping kids busy and away from heroin," said Commissioner Brendan Hopkins, who suggested holding more activities for young people.

Krantz said he wants events "that would benefit all businesses" downtown, although he is concerned about events involving food, music and alcohol sales that would mean the Armory is competing with surrounding bars and restaurants.

Commissioner Patrick Richards stressed he does not want to "cannibalize" local establishments, but he suggested booking music acts that don't typically play downtown venues.

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Commissioner Robert Preston said the town budgets money each year for organizations that "enhance the community" by providing a service, such as its stipend to the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company.

"I don't see where the Armory is that much different," he said.

Krantz said the town must hire at least two full-time employees and two part-time employees to properly staff the building 16 hours a day, seven days a week during events.

He has been overseeing the armory since the former manager, Dave Gigliotti, resigned in early May. Gigliotti was the sole town staffer who managed the armory, as well as summer events in nearby Shamrock Park.

The full-time events manager would receive a salary of $39,670 a year, and the assistant events manager would be paid $31,132 a year. The part-time events staffers would get $12.71 per hour, Krantz said.

Michael Krantz, director of administration for the Town of Bel Air, discusses daily usage of the Bel Air Armory during a work session with the town commissioners Tuesday.
Michael Krantz, director of administration for the Town of Bel Air, discusses daily usage of the Bel Air Armory during a work session with the town commissioners Tuesday. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

He noted his payroll figures do not include the cost of benefits.

Richards said the town must strike "a delicate balance" between sound financial management and maintaining a community gathering place.

He said officials would lean on an events manager "who has fantastic experience, that we have yet to hire, to guide us on this journey."

Town officials also discussed forming a nonprofit foundation to take over the cost of facility maintenance and bringing in events – this foundation would assume the full cost of the Armory, unlike the current agreement the town has with the Rockfield Foundation to share costs of operating the town-owned Rockfield Manor.

No decisions were made Tuesday. Krantz said the commissioners requested the work session to discuss "the future use of the Armory as a complex, as a whole."

The town executed a $656,000 construction contract last June to refurbish the garages – state Community Legacy grants covered $500,000 of the cost, with the rest covered by town funds.

The Armory Marketplace is the site for the Belle Air Market the second Sunday of each month from May through October.

Three of five garage spaces have been refurbished, one for meeting space, where the commissioners met Tuesday, the second as the future home of the Harford Artists' Association gallery, and the third is open for community events.

The town allowed Karen Jacobs, owner of the Tiny Toes children's boutique in Bel Air, to "beta test" the third space Monday and Tuesday for charity events to celebrate her business' 10th anniversary.

"The town gave us the space for the last two days, which was awesome because we couldn't have pulled it off in our store," Jacobs said as she wrapped up her event.

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