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Bel Air approves contract for final phase of Armory Marketplace project

The Board of Town Commissioners recently approved a contract for $322,000 with Imark Builders of Edgewood to renovate the last two of the five former garages, left, that are being turned into business incubator and small market spaces at the Armory Markeplace off Lee Street.
The Board of Town Commissioners recently approved a contract for $322,000 with Imark Builders of Edgewood to renovate the last two of the five former garages, left, that are being turned into business incubator and small market spaces at the Armory Markeplace off Lee Street. (ERIKA BUTLER/THE AEGIS/BSMG)

What Bel Air town officials say will be the last phase of construction for the Armory Marketplace project is expected to begin this spring.

The Board of Town Commissioners recently approved a contract for $322,000 with Imark Builders of Edgewood to renovate the last two of the five former garages that are being turned into business incubator and small market spaces.

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The garages being renovated are closest to Lee Street, which is the entrance to L-shaped complex.

That contract will put the total amount spent on the marketplace project over $1 million since the project’s inception in 2009.

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The Imark contract also will include improvements to the courtyard/parking area in front of the garages, town Economic Development Director Trish Heidenreich told the commissioners at the most recent town meeting Feb. 20. Imark also was the contractor on the prior construction and renovations involved in the Armory Marketpace project.

Heidenreich said Imark was the lone bidder, initially quoting a price of $375,000 that the town was able to get reduced through “value engineering” and by making a few cuts to the scope of what was first proposed.

As was the case with prior four phases of the project that included concept planning (2010) and site planning, demolition and retrofitting three of the garages (2014-15), the final phase largely will be funded by a variety of grants, Heidenreich said.

The largest of the grants is $150,000 from the Maryland Community Legacy Program, which has anted up significant other funding for the Armory Marketplace project. Additional funding will come from a federal block grant and from the Greater Bel Air Community Foundation, according to Heidenreich, who said the town is responsible for matching the state grant with funding or in-kind services.

Through the end of 2016, when the last work was completed on the first three spaces, the project had cost the town almost $700,000, with all but $100,000 coming from state and federal grants.

In 2016, Harford Artists Gallery became the first tenant at Armory Markeplace, moving its gallery to the south side of the L-shaped former garage complex from a building at Rockfield Manor.

The town encouraged that move to help keep up the downtown area’s designation as an Arts & Entertainment District. The gallery occupies 1,485 square feet and pays 25 percent of its sales to the town in lieu of rent.

Heidenreich said the other two finished spaces are leased to a yoga studio and a personal fitness trainer, the former space is about 880 square feet and the latter about 670 square feet. The tenants pay $6 a square foot in rent plus utilities.

She said she has “more applicants” for the two spaces that will be finished this spring and summer.

“I think you have done a great job putting businesses in there,” Town Commissioner Philip Einhorn told Heidenreich. “You and your staff deserve a round of applause.”

Heidenreich said the Armory Marketplace has done what she believed it could do, “foster the growth of business in the town; that’s the payback.”

She said later, however, that she’s looking forward to completion of the project, which has taken the better part of nine years.

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When Heidenreich and then town administrator Chris Schlehr first proposed doing something with the garages, which were mainly being used for storage by the town, there was some skepticism both at Town Hall and in the local business community.

Converting the space for fledgling businesses was thought by some commissioners to be counterproductive, because it would cause the town to have to compete with local landlords in the downtown area, many who had vacant spaces in the storefronts along Main Street.

Also questioned was how the town would pay to operate the complex from businesses that would be recruited primarily because they were new and would not likely be able to afford much rent.

The project also was bogged down by reviews of the Maryland Historical Trust because the Armory and grounds are in the state historic property inventory, and the final phase is about a year behind where Heidenreich had said she hoped it would be in February 2017.

Town Commissioner Patrick Richards, who was initially skeptical of the project when he joined the town board in 2013 but who also cast a key vote to keep it going, said he is happy with the way it turned out.

“We’ve reached the point now where we have to talk about the future, not just how this [marketplace] but the entire Armory will operate,” Richards said.

The commissioners have a retreat scheduled for Saturday morning at the Armory to do just that.

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