On a mission to get downtown hopping

Bel Air: An alliance has organized programs to lure businesses to Main Street - and it seems to be working.

January 18, 2004|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SUN STAFF

Saturday's chocolate festival at the Bel Air National Guard Armory will provide a sweet topping for the Downtown Revitalization Alliance's efforts to keep Main Street vibrant.

The festival is one of many programs the alliance has organized to improve and bring businesses to downtown Bel Air, and those efforts are paying off in four recent start-ups: Sean Bolan's Irish Pub and Restaurant, Main Street Cigar Co., Carried Away Gourmet and Prime Time Jewelry.

And these projects aren't all that the alliance has in store. There are other festivals, building facade improvements and proposals to deal with parking issues.

"[The effort] involves other businesses being attracted to Bel Air. It involves a huge crowd seeing the town, and hopefully liking the town and its people," said Jim Welch, downtown manager of Bel Air.

"What we saw when we evaluated Bel Air was that it was really dominated by office and government uses," said Craig Ward, president of the alliance. "It would be more exciting if there were more restaurants and special retail, more reasons for people to be in town after 5 o'clock."

"Probably 75 percent of what's happening downtown is still office and financial entities," Welch said. "We have a goal that if the empty spaces are filled with restaurants and entertainment, the ratio will reach 70-30."

The problem isn't lack of interest by small business owners, it's lack of space, Ward said. "Availability of space is tight; there are not many vacancies," he said.

The Board of Education is planning to construct a new office building in an empty lot on Courtland Street across from the public parking garage to replace its aging headquarters on East Gordon Street.

That construction might be just the right opportunity for the revitalization alliance. The Board of Education leases three offices on Main Street, and they will be vacated when the new building opens. "The old Board of Education building will open about 20,000 square feet of space on Main Street, a real opportunity to provide business locations," Ward said.

"It is a revitalization effort because we have buildings, we have streets," Welch said. "We want to restructure what's here, we look at what the property owners want and need, and we help them fill a vacancy.

"We're specifically looking for restaurants, and we have been fortunate in that they seem to be looking for us," Welch said.

"The town has been extremely supportive. They actually pushed to get us open faster," said Dan Brown of Sean Bolan's Irish Pub and Restaurant. "They're doing a lot to attract business to the area."

Since its opening last month, the Bel Air Sean Bolan's has been a successful expansion of the original restaurant in Federal Hill. Sean Bolan's seems to have followed in a trend of restaurants and taverns from Baltimore opening in Bel Air. The trend was set by Looney's pub, and will be strengthened with the addition of Ropewalk tavern, also with a location in Federal Hill, in June. The Ropewalk tavern will occupy the old Aegis building.

"We want more of what you would call `Ma and Pa' businesses to fill in the areas between restaurants," Welch said. For small businesses, starting out can be hard.

"Sales aren't as good as they were at our other location," said Anthony Mirarchi, the joint owner of the Main Street Cigar Co., "but we can afford to take a step back in order to take a few steps forward." The Cigar Co., previously Fader's, recently relocated from the Bel Air Town Center shopping area to Main Street.

"We're hoping for better visibility," Mirarchi said, "As opposed to being strictly a destination location, we want to benefit from walk-by traffic."

Carried Away Gourmet will be opening on Main Street by the end of the month. Owner and chef David Micozzi is optimistic about the future of the downtown area.

"If we do it right, in three to five years, Main Street should be hopping," Micozzi said. Many established businesses are supportive of the revitalization efforts.

"We need something to make it more attractive for small businesses," said Paula Mank of Bel Air Antiques, a Main Street staple for 18 years. "It's like the heart of the town."

Mank isn't the only one who thinks so. "The Heart of Harford" is a logo that appears on many signs around town, thanks to the efforts of the alliance's design committee. The new signs are intended to clarify parking, an issue that business owners note as a challenge in attracting customers.

"Get rid of the meters," Mirarchi suggested. "There are other ways to generate revenue. If you abolish the meters, it makes it more convenient for shoppers."

"We should have 15-minute parking," Micozzi said. "It would keep Main Street moving."

The alliance is looking into ways to improve the parking situation.

"Currently a task force is meeting to talk about a new garage on the west side of Bel Air," Ward said, "and we've talked about a coupon program for use of spaces in the garage."

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