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On a mission to get downtown hopping

Saturday's chocolate festival at the Bel Air National Guard Armory will provide a sweet topping for the Downtown Revitalization Alliance's efforts to keep Main Street vibrant.

The festival is one of many programs the alliance has organized to improve and bring businesses to downtown Bel Air, and those efforts are paying off in four recent start-ups: Sean Bolan's Irish Pub and Restaurant, Main Street Cigar Co., Carried Away Gourmet and Prime Time Jewelry.

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And these projects aren't all that the alliance has in store. There are other festivals, building facade improvements and proposals to deal with parking issues.

"[The effort] involves other businesses being attracted to Bel Air. It involves a huge crowd seeing the town, and hopefully liking the town and its people," said Jim Welch, downtown manager of Bel Air.

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"What we saw when we evaluated Bel Air was that it was really dominated by office and government uses," said Craig Ward, president of the alliance. "It would be more exciting if there were more restaurants and special retail, more reasons for people to be in town after 5 o'clock."

"Probably 75 percent of what's happening downtown is still office and financial entities," Welch said. "We have a goal that if the empty spaces are filled with restaurants and entertainment, the ratio will reach 70-30."

The problem isn't lack of interest by small-business owners, it's lack of space, Ward said. "Availability of space is tight; there are not many vacancies," he said.

The Board of Education is planning to construct a new office building in an empty lot on Courtland Street across from the public parking garage to replace its aging headquarters on East Gordon Street.

That construction might be just the right opportunity for the revitalization alliance. The Board of Education leases three offices on Main Street, and they will be vacated when the new building opens. "The old Board of Education building will open about 20,000 square feet of space on Main Street, a real opportunity to provide business locations," Ward said.

"It is a revitalization effort because we have buildings, we have streets," Welch said. "We want to restructure what's here, we look at what the property owners want and need, and we help them fill a vacancy.

"We're specifically looking for restaurants, and we have been fortunate in that they seem to be looking for us," Welch said.

"The town has been extremely supportive. They actually pushed to get us open faster," said Dan Brown of Sean Bolan's Irish Pub and Restaurant. "They're doing a lot to attract business to the area."

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Since its opening last month, the Bel Air Sean Bolan's has been a successful expansion of the original restaurant in Federal Hill. Sean Bolan's seems to have followed in a trend of restaurants and taverns from Baltimore opening in Bel Air. The trend was set by Looney's pub, and will be strengthened with the addition of Ropewalk tavern, also with a location in Federal Hill, in June. The Ropewalk tavern will occupy the old Aegis building.

"We want more of what you would call 'Ma and Pa' businesses to fill in the areas between restaurants," Welch said. For small businesses, starting out can be hard.

"Sales aren't as good as they were at our other location," said Anthony Mirarchi, the joint owner of the Main Street Cigar Co., "but we can afford to take a step back in order to take a few steps forward." The Cigar Co., previously Fader's, recently relocated from the Bel Air Town Center shopping area to Main Street.

"We're hoping for better visibility," Mirarchi said, "As opposed to being strictly a destination location, we want to benefit from walk-by traffic."

Carried Away Gourmet will be opening on Main Street by the end of the month. Owner and chef David Micozzi is optimistic about the future of the downtown area.

"If we do it right, in three to five years, Main Street should be hopping," Micozzi said. Many established businesses are supportive of the revitalization efforts.

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"We need something to make it more attractive for small businesses," said Paula Mank of Bel Air Antiques, a Main Street staple for 18 years. "It's like the heart of the town."

Mank isn't the only one who thinks so. "The Heart of Harford" is a logo that appears on many signs around town, thanks to the efforts of the alliance's design committee. The new signs are intended to clarify parking, an issue that business owners note as a challenge in attracting customers.

"Get rid of the meters," Mirarchi suggested. "There are other ways to generate revenue. If you abolish the meters, it makes it more convenient for shoppers."

"We should have 15-minute parking," Micozzi said. "It would keep Main Street moving."

The alliance is looking into ways to improve the parking situation.

"Currently a task force is meeting to talk about a new garage on the west side of Bel Air," Ward said, "and we've talked about a coupon program for use of spaces in the garage."

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The Bel Air Downtown Revitalization Alliance is a nonprofit, volunteer organization composed of four committees: economic restructuring, promotions and events, design and organization.

The design committee is also involved in improving the Main Street streetscape. Main Street Maryland facade improvement grants are offered to a few businesses each year, helping to enhance the overall aesthetics of Main Street. Funding is only provided for visible physical improvements. Debbie Williams and Anne Adams Kennedy are co-chairwomen of the organization committee.

"We're trying to increase membership and develop the benefits, the things that will help people want to become members [of the alliance]," Williams said. "One of the big benefits is that they get to help shape the future of downtown Bel Air. They could also benefit from promotions and events that we hold.

"We're hoping to expedite new businesses with fast-track building permits and a loans program," Williams said.

Once his business is more established, Micozzi plans to offer Thursday, Friday and Saturday night dinners to "bring nightlife back to Main Street." Mirarchi also recognizes the need to attract people downtown in the evening.

"Right now we tailor our hours to suit the current demand," Mirarchi said. "There's not much here after 5 o'clock. We hope that in the spring the Ropewalk will increase evening trade."

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Brown, the Sean Bolan's owner, identified a need to attract business on the weekends. "Business is slow on Sundays because a lot is closed. I'd like to see more things open Saturday and Sunday during the day," he said.

In April 2001, Bel Air joined Westminster, Cambridge and Oakland when it received recognition from the Maryland Main Street Program, operating under the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a Maryland Main Street.

The recognition was earned largely as a result of the revitalization alliance's efforts.

Welch explained the program: "It was designed to help older downtown areas of towns to revitalize themselves because of the outflux of malls and shopping centers."

Main Street Bel Air and its surrounding areas, like many towns across the country, have declined as large, corporate shopping centers have been introduced into the area.

"[This program] in no way tries to compete with malls. We're very different. Our goal is to attract people and businesses downtown," Welch said. In order to be considered a Maryland Main Street, a town must have an active volunteer base, a downtown manager and an agreement to organize under the criteria and structure of a national program.

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Welch was resolute in identifying the main goal: "to create a vibrant office, business and retail community."

Chocolate festival

The festival will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Bel Air National Guard Armory, 37 N. Main St. Chocolate confections will be available. Sponsored by the Bel Air Downtown Revitalization Alliance. 410-638-1023.


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