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While many people are envisioning where to put the tree or how to hang garland, Dorothy Maurer will be decorating an entire downtown.

After nearly 25 years as the chairwoman of the Appearance and Beautification Committee of Bel Air, she has the experience, the skills and her own diagrams to recreate each scene. But this year presents more hurdles for even the most organized holiday trimmer. Main Street, the heart of downtown, is undergoing a nearly $9 million face-lift that has led to yet-to-be-replaced lampposts, missing railings and torn-up curbs and sidewalks.

"We are definitely doing this corner," she told a group of volunteers gathered on Main Street yesterday. "But we can't do anything on the right side of the street. They will be tearing that out soon."

Maurer, her committee and several other volunteers must decorate around construction crews, tall, portable lighting and heavy equipment, all surrounded by glaring orange plastic fencing. Still, they plan to make the Harford County seat glitter for the holidays.

"I am hoping there is not only just one lamppost to decorate," she said. "And I am going to walk along the street myself to see what railings are still left."

Maurer, 72, was crisscrossing the street during her walk to avoid construction crews and closed pathways.

"What lights, if any, we can hang is really a day-to-day decision," said Stephen D. Kline, Bel Air's deputy director of public works. "Right now, it does not look like many."

A week before the traditional lights were to go up, the new lampposts had yet to be installed, several iron railings were missing and blocks of sidewalk remained impassable.

Even the annual Christmas parade Sunday - the decorating deadline - will make a detour from Main to Hickory Street, a parallel road that sees a lot of emergency vehicle traffic from the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company but is construction-free.

During Maurer's tenure, the number of volunteers has dwindled, but the workload has increased. She and a few others were out yesterday hanging wreaths that Maurer had finished with gold bows and glistening icicles and wrapping swags around railings at the Harford County Courthouse.

"The tubs are all marked with where everything goes," said Bill Clark, a committee member. "Dot has her act together, as usual, and we don't deviate."

She responded: "He is just here to give me a hard time."

Today, the volunteers will turn their attention to Town Hall, the Armory, the public works building and police headquarters.

"I have been doing this for years," said Clark, 76. "I just like to help the town of Bel Air. It's a real nice place to live."

Despite this year's setbacks, Maurer has the annual holiday task organized down to the last spray-painted pinecone. She has printed and laminated the schedules so volunteers and public works crews know where each bow, swag and wreath should hang, what doorways are to be festooned and which trees should be strung with lights.

"I laminated so the paper would not get torn or dirty and so we could use these directions for a couple of years," she said.

The papers are also color-coded - blue for the committee's duties and yellow for those of public works. She knows the town's stored holiday inventory as well as what is in her own attic.

"If it's not on the list, public works is not to touch it," she said. "Too many things were damaged last year" - including the bows, torn when crews neglected to remove them from garland.

"Women handle bows more gingerly than guys, who are used to building sidewalks," Kline said.

Maurer will allow work crews "to do the high and the heavy, but we do the rest." She reserves the right to oversee.

"You have to fluff bows," she said. "You have to hang swags in the right direction. After 24 years, I know how to do this."

The committee meets year-round. Members plan the town gardens and oversee the planting of about 5,000 flowers in the spring. Weeks later, they are poring over Christmas catalogs, looking for the prettiest bargains.

Two years ago, the town set aside $25,000 for upgrades to the holiday decor. The committee ended up with lighted silhouettes, 4-foot-tall letters that spell "Seasons Greetings," new streetlights, and another complete herd of deer - one was stolen from the old set of 12 - all with a 20 percent discount for ordering early.

Maurer has rewrapped in heavy-duty fabric the boxes that fill Santa's sleigh, given the artificial topiaries a fresh coat of spray paint and redecorated dozens of artificial wreaths. To save the town money, she used to make more than 200 bows herself, starting on Labor Day. But she has relinquished that task and ordered $134 worth of metallic gold bows this year.

"My office is filled right now with bows," said Kline.

But he does not mind.

"This committee makes our job a lot easier," he said. "These guys meet and plan and every year bring back the flavor of the holidays in a small town."

Main Street merchants are clamoring for the holiday decor, he said. Greenery, colorful lights and bright gold bows signify the onset of the shopping season.

"The holiday decorations give people who come through town a better feeling about the community," said Town Commissioner Robert M. Preston, who was given the honorary title of mayor by his commission peers last week. "All these volunteers who go out of their way are what make the town go round."

The committee also decks the public buildings in holiday finery.

"This is really what residents appreciate the most," said Preston. "It really is the charm of small towns."

Kline's crews help wherever they can and know when to stay out of the way.

"They tell me what to do and I listen," he said. "I don't argue. They are set in their ways."

Maurer, who holds the record as committee chair, has not thought about stepping down or retiring, as many of her colleagues have done.

"Through the years, people just dropped off," she said. "The younger ones are involved in careers and child care and have no time. It's like pulling teeth to get help. It's no one's fault. People are just double- and triple-working."

Committee members find themselves involved in year-round planning, planting and decorating.

"You have to get the spring flower orders in by Aug. 1 and make all your holiday decisions right after that," Maurer said.

Even before the decorations are up, she has set an early January task.

"We will take down what we put up so that everything goes back where it is supposed to," she said.


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