Main Street Bel Air strives for new life

Revitalization: With money, organization and unique offerings, downtown merchants strive to draw new customers.

Merchants hope to bring vitality to Main Street

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

Ruth Foard remembers Main Street Bel Air on weekend nights when the streets were jammed with folks from all over Harford County who came to town to see a movie, get a milkshake, shop and see friends.

She would watch the bustle from inside Lutz's appliance store, where she started working in 1939. Back in those days, families would come in to see the new refrigerators; farmers would shop there for milk coolers.

"Friday night everybody came to town and they congregated on Main Street," said Foard, now 81 and company president. "It was a real nice town, a country town."

Over the years, downtown Bel Air has struggled to compete with surrounding shopping centers and Harford Mall. In the past 30 years, many merchants have packed up and moved away. Gone are the Hub, Whip Stitch and Wooden Hanger clothing stores. Offices fill many former storefronts. Friday nights now draw a much smaller crowd to the well-known Georgetown North and a handful of other restaurants.

But the town's leaders are hoping to change that. Last year, Bel Air won designation as a Maryland Main Street community, a state program that qualifies the town for help in receiving grants to help bring new businesses downtown and improve existing ones.

After about 1 1/2 years in the program, Bel Air is seeing new funds and faces downtown, said James E. Welch, Bel Air's downtown revitalization manager. This year, Bel Air commissioners earmarked about $60,000 for downtown projects, and the town has received about $80,000 in state grants for sign and facade work, Welch said.

The Bel Air Downtown Revitalization Alliance Inc., a nonprofit group of about 30 members, has also put on a chocolate festival and barbecue bash that raised nearly $17,000, he said.

Events are bringing people downtown, and that is key because many of the area's newcomers think Bel Air's main street is Route 24, said Elizabeth M. Carven, the town's community development administrator.

"Some don't even know there's a downtown in Bel Air," Carven said. "It's a challenge: How do you get that message across to people?"

Although Welch said state officials have told him that Bel Air is ahead of many other Maryland Main Street towns with its fund raising and event planning, "my personal goal is to have more unique shops along Main Street and Bond Street," he said. "I wish that were a little further along."

Yet downtown boasts an eclectic mix of shops that even includes a Klein's grocery store on North Main Street. "A lot of little towns don't have a grocery store downtown anymore. That's a pretty fabulous asset," Carven said.

Bel Air Bakery on Bond Street lures customers with its fresh doughnuts, decorated cakes and cases full of cookies. Bel Air Country Store's folk art and antiques have drawn shoppers to North Main Street for more than a decade. Newcomers include Ewenique Yarns -- the only yarn shop in the county -- and Moore's Candies. Welch said he is negotiating to bring a women's apparel shop to downtown. "It's a slow process," he said.

Welch, 58, who graduated from Bel Air High School, remembers meeting at Richardson's or Boyd and Fulford, drugstores with soda fountains, to get a shake after football practice or before an evening dance at the National Guard Armory up the street.

Boyd and Fulford, which opened in 1892, is still on Main Street, though its soda fountain has been sold. "We did the soda fountain routine for a thousand years," said the current owner, Eugene Streett, 72, who started working after school at the pharmacy in 1944. In its heyday, 24 customers could sit at the U-shaped counter; more in booths and marble-top tables. It made braunschweiger, ham salad and cream cheese with olives fresh each day. Today, traditional pharmacy fare shares space with magazines, a few gifts, snacks and greeting cards. The tin ceiling and terrazzo floor are covered.

Boyd and Fulford is one of only a handful of businesses that have stayed downtown for five decades or longer:

Hirsch's men's store, 9 S. Main St. Founded in 1924, Hirsch's haberdashery has dressed generations of Harford County men and their sons. "I call them loyalists," said store owner David Cohen of his clientele. The store carries suits, tuxedos, sports jackets, shirts and ties. Cohen, 84, who married into the family business in 1941, said his shop's personal service and quick alterations keep folks coming back.

Lutz's, 8 N. Main St. Charles L. Lutz opened the appliance store in 1929, first focusing on appliances and milk coolers and later expanding into central air-conditioning installation and television sales. Today, the inventory includes washers, dryers, refrigerators and stoves, and the owners emphasize customer service. They, too, enjoy loyal clients who point newcomers to Bel Air toward Lutz's. "The neighbors will refer them to us. That's really ... how we've kept going," Foard said.

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