Small-town charm endures

Hub: Bel Air's commercial-government center is surrounded by growing new communities.

County seat sees growth

October 27, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

BEL AIR -- On an urban scale, Bel Air's population of about 10,400 might make it sound like a sleepy town, but don't be fooled.

The county's shopping and government hub is surrounded by about 10 times as many people, many of whom moved here to enjoy the good schools and small-town feeling.

People who live here say it's that charm and community pride that put Bel Air in the center of the county's hottest growth area.

The profusion of people has brought with it traffic problems and school crowding, but in a town where police say the biggest crime problem is shoplifting, many residents seem willing to endure a few growing pains.

"It's still a community with a lot of charm," said Mayor David E. Carey, who moved to Harford County in the 1990s.

From its sleepy start as a one-street county seat in the late 1780s, Bel Air grew up serving the courthouse crowd, and that tradition remains strong today in the Main Street area.

The arrival of the Maryland & Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1880s drew farmers and new businesses to town. Then in the 1970s, the Harford Mall was built on the site of an old racetrack, setting the stage for an explosion of shopping centers on farmland in the Route 24/U.S. 1 corridor.

The town is fortunate to have few serious crime problems. In the past five years, there have been no homicides and two rapes, according to Bel Air police statistics.

"Our biggest crime is theft because we're the commercial hub of the county," said John Harkins, deputy chief of the Bel Air police force. There were 642 cases of theft last year, compared with 540 in 1997.

When he started on the force 31 years ago, there were six officers. Today, Harkins said, the number has tripled and the department employs 42, including support staff.

The town's population swells during the workday by as many as 40,000 state, local and federal government employees, plus shoppers, police say.

"It's too crowded now," said Viola Scott, a retired county educator who lives on Aliceanne Street. "For older people, it's hard to move around during the day. There's just so many people coming through."

And almost anyplace the town could grow into has long since been filled. The town has been 98 percent developed for 10 years, Carey said.

"The growth is and has been inevitable," said Robert Greene, owner of Robert Greene and Associates Insured Financial Services and former personnel officer for Harford County.

"I guess you could always argue it would have been done more tastefully. Bel Air is the crossroads of the county. The challenge is to turn it into a positive."

The town is a big draw for young families, from North Bel Air's rambling Victorians to Howard Park's post-World War II ranchers, to Major's Choice's 1990s town homes and Colonials. Median age has risen from 32 in 1980 to 36 in 2000, and median household income has remained steady since 1980, in the $50,000 range.

"People really take pride in their neighborhoods in Bel Air," said Elizabeth M. Carven, community planning administrator. "If it's the smallest house in town, or the biggest house in town, it's well-kept-up. All the neighborhoods have a charm of their own. They're all a little bit different."

Parents looking for strong schools find Bel Air's have consistently ranked among the county's highest on state tests. Last year, Bel Air Middle School outperformed all other middle schools in the county on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests with a composite score of 72.7 percent, meeting the state's satisfactory standard.

While the town has mostly filled its limits, developments sprawl just outside Bel Air's borders. Within a 5-mile radius of the city, about 100,000 people live in new county communities, Carven said. It creates, she said, "that circle of opportunity and obstacle."

The town can benefit by drawing these residents into town to shop and eat and play, she said, but the traffic issues can be frustrating. The main thoroughfares in and out of town are state roads, she said, which can make long-term planning tough. "The players who control it are beyond our control," she said.

Not surprisingly, Carven and Carey name traffic as the top challenge facing Bel Air. Second is renewing downtown's shopping and entertainment district.

Main Street was once the biggest draw for county residents. Harkins, the deputy police chief and brother of County Executive James M. Harkins, recalls coming to town regularly with his family in the 1950s.

"Mom and Dad knew everybody. It was like a big social thing when you came to Bel Air," he said. "They reminisced about births and deaths. Pretty much in those days, everybody knew everybody."

Greene, who has owned businesses on Main Street for more than two decades, recalls going to the movies in the 1950s in a segregated Bel Air -- entering through the back door and sitting in the balcony.

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