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Main Street on the mend

The Baltimore Sun

The steady beeping of machinery, the thunderous slam as jackhammer hits pavement and the constant crunch of gravel under the tires of a backhoe have overtaken the sounds of commerce on Main Street in downtown Bel Air.

The $8.8 million Main Street Streetscape Project that is expanding a half-mile section and enlarging the sidewalks might eventually improve business in the county seat, but for now it is taking a bite out of sales.

At least nine empty storefronts with "For Lease" signs in the windows line Main Street.

"We were advised it would create a 15 to 40 percent loss," said Joanne McCord, the owner of Bear-ly Used, a consignment and gift shop on Main Street. "I haven't done the October figures yet, but for the month of September we recorded a 35 percent loss. It's pretty sad."

The gunk and tar tracked into McCord's store from the street forced her to put a "wipe your feet" sign in the doorway.

"So much stuff gets tracked in, but the town is going to take care of our carpets, and that's a good thing," she said. "Everyone is being very nice, very professional, but it's just taking longer than expected."

The streetscape project, which began Jan. 9 and should be completed next fall, runs from Fulford Avenue to Gordon Street. Contractors will reconstruct and resurface the road, replace curbs, gutters, concrete and brick sidewalks, and create new crosswalks.

The street also will receive new traffic signals, pedestrian lighting and landscaping.

Replacing utility lines under the street has caused the most upheaval, although the work was vital and long overdue, said James Welch, manager of the Bel Air Downtown Revitalization Alliance.

"That part of it was the most disturbing, as far as normal business continuing, but it just had to be done," Welch said.

Much of the work was originally scheduled to be completed at night, but concrete contractors for the sidewalks were only available during the day, he said.

Some businesses are doing better because of the work, while others are a little off in their income but maintaining, Welch said.

"We meet with them on a regular basis, and it's an obvious concern with the town as far as public relations," he said. "It's probably our No. 1 concern."

The State Highway Administration, which is overseeing the work, has made sure at least one traffic lane and one parking lane are open at all times along the route.

"We are certainly concerned with our restaurants and those retail businesses that need constant access," Welch said. "We've done the best we could at maintaining that. It is certainly a difficult situation, though.

Those who have done business on Main Street for decades can recall the last time the road was expanded.

"Thirty years ago, they did the same thing they are doing now, and we managed to stay alive the last time it came through," said David Cohen, owner of Hirsch's Men's Store.

Three Main Street shops are called survivors, Cohen said, including his, Lutz's Appliances and Boyd and Fulford Drug Store, because they are the only stores that continued in business since the last reconstruction occurred in the 1970s.

After 70 years in menswear, Cohen has decided to close his store but not because of the roadwork. He is ready to retire.

"I'm going to be 90 years old," he said. "I've put in my time."

Cohen said he knows how his store was able to survive the last major construction.

"Our customers kept coming in," Cohen said. "A lot of stores didn't do free alterations, which we always did. Our customers were loyal."

Businesses are relying on their loyal customers to keep sales up. Bridget Mitchell, co-owner of Shamrock Coffee Co., said her regular customers have helped her keep sales steady.

"Obviously, it has hurt some of our walk-ups and business in the morning, but we're all for it just because it is going to help," she said, shouting above the sounds of hammering coming through the store's open door.

Businesses such as the Greene Turtle Restaurant, with easy access to parking, and those with entrances off Main Street, such as Shamrock Coffee and Sean Bolan's Irish Pub & Restaurant, have not been so adversely affected, owners said.

"One day last week, we couldn't use our front door," said Dan Brown, co-owner of Sean Bolan's. "We had to use our back entrance; we're fortunate to have one; a lot of businesses don't."

Others have not fared so well.

The drop in business forced David Micozzi, owner of Carried Away Gourmet, to make staff cuts.

"Our customers coming from outside of Bel Air have stopped coming due to the traffic," Micozzi said. "So our customer base has been reduced by 30 to 40 percent."

Pedestrians still come to Carried Away Gourmet, but new business has decreased significantly, he said.

"When it is complete we will all benefit from it," Micozzi said. "Getting through it is still the hardest part. We just have to survive."

Most businesses are certain the refurbished street will spur economic development.

"Harford County won't have anything like this when it's done," said Renato Buontempo, owner of Main Street Tower Restaurant and Buontempo Bros. Italian Eatery. "There won't be anything in the county like this beautiful, new Main Street."

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