Mixed reviews for Bel Air's retailers

September 06, 1992|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

Downtown Bel Air is the most popular shopping locale in Harford County for hardware, banking, insurance and restaurants, but patrons have a love-hate relationship with the area, a recent study found.

Shoppers love the small-town atmosphere, the convenience and safety but hate the traffic, parking and limited variety of stores.

Carol Deibel, Bel Air's director of planning and community development, has worked for almost two years with the Community Development Commission, the Planning Commission and the Board of Town Commissioners to produce a market analysis and retail development strategy for the town's central business district and the U.S. 1 corridor.

A comprehensive demographic profile of the Bel Air market area and an analysis of its retail potential were completed last month by the Timonium-based consulting firm of Whitney, Bailey, Cox and Magnani.

Ms. Deibel is hopeful that the study will encourage retailers to meet the needs of consumers and stem the flow of shopping dollars to areas outside the county.

"Our purpose for developing this study was to provide as much information as possible in one publication for anyone interested in going into business in Bel Air," she said.

The report recommended that the Main Street shopping district offer stores selling unusual gifts, imported items, gourmet foods or specialty eateries, fashion apparel and similar goods. It also encouraged stores that specialized in rare books, antique glass or other collectibles.

George F. Harrison Jr., chairman of the Community Development Commission, believes the study is comprehensive enough to be valuable to current and future area merchants.

"It points out all areas needing to be addressed by merchants operating within the town and is a useful guide to anyone desiring to enter the retail merchants community," he said.

Bel Air is a key commercial hub for the county. The study revealed that a large number of residents in the Bel Air area spend their shopping dollars at White Marsh Mall and Towson Town Center in Baltimore County.

The out-migration of dollars weakens the employment base of Harford County, the report found.

Among other key components of the report: * The population of the county in 1991 was 187,152, up from 145,930 in 1980, in an increase of more than 24 percent. By 1996, the population is expected to be 212,139, an increase of more than 13 percent.

* The estimated number of households in 1991 was 65,449, an increase of 40.6 percent since 1980. By 1996, it is projected that

there will be 77,253 households -- a gain of almost 15.28 percent.

* The median household income for 1989, 1991 and 1996 respectively were $21,927, $44,696 and $49,348. With incomes growing steadily, prospects for rising retail expenditure are good, the report found.

* Expansion of the Harford Mall should be promoted, with the initial phase of expansion a 40,000-square-foot addition to Hecht's. Future expansion could add 300,000 square feet to the 500,000-square-foot mall.

* Bel Air Plaza, the town's oldest center, has been successful but needs upgrading. The plaza has 17 acres for expansion, and its officials are studying a proposal that would double the shopping area.

The study concludes that Bel Air merchants are unlikely to survive unscathed if Wal-Mart or another giant discount store moves in, especially in light of vacancies in malls along the U.S. 1 corridor.

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