When Mina and Santa Castellano decided to open a restaurant in Harford County, they knew just where they wanted to be - on Bel Air's Main Street.
"Everyone on the street is wonderful," says Mina Castellano, 28, who has been serving Italian salads, sandwiches and desserts at DePalma Cafe & Deli with her mother, Santa, 49, for the past three months. "It would be great for Bel Air to be known for Main Street."
But Dave Wolff, 47, whose Fine Grind coffee bar has become a popular hangout in the 2 1/2 years he's been on Main Street, knows the reality of a small-town location. "We have a lot of regulars - government and office workers. Not as many people come from outside. It's a drive-though town."
That soon may change. Bel Air is trying to position itself as a destination spot, much as Ellicott City, Frederick and nearby Havre de Grace have done in recent years.
"People are looking for a little Main Street town," says Elizabeth Carven, the town's community development administrator, referring to the popularity of The Avenue, a commercial center in White Marsh modeled after an old-fashioned Main Street. "We have it. We don't have to build it."
In Bel Air, consultants have been hired to compile a market study of the downtown area by September. Dozens of community and government folks are involved in focus groups looking for ways to spruce up Main Street - a one-way thoroughfare - and attract and retain businesses. And the town is in the process of hiring its first street manager.
The manager will act as liaison between town officials and business owners, and have an office in the armory on Main Street, Carven says. The job, which will pay between $20,000 and $25,000, is expected to be filled by mid-September.
"The philosophy is that downtowns need to be managed like a mall or shopping center," says Cindy Stone, coordinator of the Main Street Maryland Program for the state Department of Housing and Community Development. "In Bel Air, the mayor and staff are very committed. That downtown isn't forgotten."
In the past three years, seven communities have been designated by the state program as areas in need of help - Oakland, Cumberland, Westminster, Taneytown, Easton, Denton and Baltimore's Charles Village. Bel Air plans to apply to the program, which offers technical assistance to owners of small businesses struggling to compete against big-box stores and megamalls.
"It's perfect for Smart Growth, protecting what's there," says Stone, referring to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's initiative to contain urban sprawl.
According to a recent report by the Main Street program, $11 million has been invested in fixing up buildings, 478 new jobs have been created and 28 new businesses opened in towns involved in the program during 1998 and 1999.
Bel Air has not set a price tag for its plans because most are in the development stage. But a streetscape project on nearby Bond Street - involving brickwork, landscaping and curbing - cost about $1.5 million, Carven says. Beautification of Main Street, which is being coordinated with the State Highway Administration, will probably cost less, she says, because not as much work needs to be done.
Bringing in new businesses may be more of a challenge.
The Red Fox restaurant, once a center for political gossip and power lunches on Main Street, recently closed. The owners, Michelle and Waldo Hanson, who operate Captain's Galley II in West Ocean City, say several people are looking at the property, which is for sale or lease. Waldo Hanson's son, Jeffrey Hanson, had been running the business.
"It was just too much restaurant for one person to handle," Michelle Hanson says.
Bel Air, which was founded in 1782, has become home to lawyers, stockbrokers and banks. A mile-long stretch of Main Street from U.S. 1 to Maulsby Avenue includes florists, a barbershop, antiques store, drugstore, clothing stores, pizza shops, delicatessens, a few specialty shops - and several empty storefronts.
"We need to look at niche stores," says George F. Harrison, 65, owner of Harrison's Paint Center, a family-run business that opened in 1947 on Main Street. "Finding someone willing to put retail stores here is not easy to do."
David Cohen, 82, of Hirsch's Men's Store is a survivor. His father-in-law, Benjamin Hirsch, opened the store in 1924, and Cohen began working there 13 years later.
While many other stores fled for the malls in the 1970s, Hirsch's stayed put. "I like Main Street," says Cohen, the store president. "I could retire, but I like it."
Providing amenities such as tailoring and fitting special sizes has given the shop staying power. "There are people who like to deal with small stores," he says. "You don't get service in the big stores."
That strong community connection keeps Maryterese and M. Eugene "Gene" Streett firmly attached to Boyd and Fulford drugstore, which they bought in 1964. Gene, 70, who stocked shelves and swept floors at the store when he was 14, is one of three pharmacists. Maryterese, 69, rings up sales and keeps customers happy.
The couple, who have been married for 45 years, have kept prescription records from the 1890s, when the shop opened and Bel Air was a summer resort for hot-and-tired city folks. The pharmacy also was known for its soda fountain, which went out of fashion in the 1960s, Maryterese Streett says.
She recalls the days before World War II when townspeople and farmhands congregated along Main Street on Friday nights. The town barbershop stayed open until midnight. The drugstore bustled with business until 11 p.m.
"It was like the boardwalk in Ocean City," Maryterese Streett says. "The center of all social life was here."
A judge and two police officers kept order, she says. The most serious crimes involved spinning car wheels and loud mufflers.
Maryterese Streett, who is serving on a committee to revitalize Main Street, believes people who live and work there have a responsibility to the town. She acknowledges downtown Bel Air has become more of a financial district but says she feels a commitment to saving the town's heritage and neighborliness.
"It's the people you care about," she says. "It's just a nice town."