A bit of Baltimore in Bel Air

Chic city transplants flourish on Main Street - with a few suburban modifications


Restaurants and pubs popular in hip Baltimore neighborhoods are trying out suburban versions of their city-tested establishments in downtown Bel Air, but with at least one difference - spill-proof sippy cups.

"When we first opened up here, we had a very limited children's menu. We didn't even have a lidded cup for the kids," said Gina Carapico, manager of the Ropewalk Tavern on Main Street. "We had spilled drinks all over the place for the first few weeks."

A nightlife-seeker strolling Main Street could be forgiven for wondering why the pub lineup seems strangely similar to the big city. In addition to Ropewalk, which has been open for about a year, there is Sean Bolan's Irish Pub & Restaurant, which opened a Main Street location in Bel Air about two years ago. And MaGerk's Pub is planning to open this spring on South Bond Street, not far from Ropewalk.

That will make three Federal Hill transplants doing business within a few blocks of each other, with Looney's Pub, an earlier city-to-county arrival with origins in Baltimore's Canton neighborhood, nearby, too.

"This is a great place to do business," said Carapico. "The small streets. The old buildings. It kind of reminds you of being downtown."

Of course, the owners know they're not in Baltimore anymore.

Harford brims with young families looking for entertainment options, and more are on the way. Businesses across the county are gearing up for the military base realignment and closiure process that will mean a significant boost in jobs at and around Aberdeen Proving Ground. Many independent business owners who have recently settled on or near Main Street say it seemed like a fine place to provide an alternative to Harford's bevy of national chain restaurants and stores.

"The growth is going to happen. I just hope that this town board is on board and we pay attention to what the needs are," Bel Air Mayor Terrence O. Hanley said.

In the minds of many, downtown Bel Air has come a long way.

Carey Marzicola, a 1982 graduate of Bel Air High School who works in Baltimore, remembers Main Street's down years after former nighttime destinations, such as Souvenirs, closed.

"I'll hear people down there talking about coming up here to go to bars," said Marzicola, who was meeting a friend for a drink downtown. "That's just hilarious to me."

It's not just the bars and restaurants that are changing the complexion of Main Street. There is a gourmet food store, a coffee shop with local art on the walls and even a bike shop, which Marzicola thought she'd never see.

The mayor said he is pleased to see more foot traffic downtown during workdays, especially with the recent completion of a central school administration building there.

And the after-sunset crowd is larger than it was three years ago, a welcome sight to many who have been around a while - as long as it doesn't turn into too much of a good thing.

"It's good to see a little nightlife in Bel Air as long as we don't get too crazy with it," Hanley said. "This is still a small, good-old-boy town, and some people have concerns. They don't want to see another Fells Point or that type of thing. It's a delicate balance."

As the number of places to buy a drink has increased along Main Street, so has the workload for the Bel Air Police Department.

"We have had some problems with disturbances, such as altercations as a result of people who were customers of those establishments," said Deputy Chief Armand Dupre.

Last year the department logged some overtime expenses to increase downtown patrols on busy holiday or summer weekends, Dupre said. A recently approved state grant will now help pay for some of the extra duty, he said.

Dupre has been on the force long enough to recall the years when the previous cluster of since-closed bars pulled people to Main Street.

"Back then it seems like we had more of a local population," he said. "Now along with the local people, we're getting people from Baltimore City, Baltimore County and other areas. ... You're getting a social mix, and sometimes that creates problems."

As a younger crowd has started finding its way to Bel Air for entertainment, officials from the Harford County Liquor Control Board have met with the bar owners to discuss problems like altercations and public urination, said board administrator Bonnie G. Maione.

"There has been 100 percent cooperation," Maione said, adding that the bars have stepped up staffs and training to help monitor situations and are cooperating with police. "Through this concerted effort, the problems have been kept to a minimum."

Along Main Street, the atmosphere differs, depending on when you're there.

A few Fridays ago, a person could stand on the corner of Main and Courtland streets at 4:45 p.m. and hear nothing but traffic as workers from the courthouse and nearby offices left for the weekend. By 5:30, the same street was so quiet that birds rustling in bushes 50 feet away were audible. But by 11 p.m., the volume had been cranked up again.

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