Bel Air gets state arts and entertainment designation

Town joins 18 other districts in Md.

December 09, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Downtown Bel Air won the state's designation as a Maryland Arts and Entertainment District on Thursday, making the Harford County seat eligible for economic development and promotion assistance.

The state Department of Business and Economic Development awards the designation to "hubs of culture and creativity" in Maryland, officials said. The state tourism office helps draw visitors to the districts for the theater, art, music, dining and shopping offered.

The Maryland Council for the Arts has recognized 18 other districts, including Havre de Grace — which earned the designation a few years ago — and Station North in Baltimore City.

Bel Air, a town of about 11,000 residents, has all the necessary components for a successful arts and entertainment district, given its location, management and arts funding, state officials said. The town has recently seen the opening of several art shops and artists' studios along Main Street, and there are plans for more arts-oriented activities.

"This is the culmination of years of work, and we are just ecstatic," said Chris Schlehr, town administrator. "We see this designation as the crown of all our efforts."

"We are a town that is really growing, especially with the infusion of BRAC," Schlehr said, referring to the nationwide military expansion at Aberdeen Proving Ground that will bring about 30,000 more people to Harford County.

Bel Air's Main Street anchors its arts core and allows easy access to its four cultural venues. Those include Reckord Armory, a two-story granite building at the north end of downtown that many residents call the Castle. The town used a $220,000 state grant to renovate the structure, which dates to 1915. The effort transformed the aging armory into a revitalized, much-needed community center. It houses the town's economic development office and a visitors' center and is often the backdrop for art exhibits, theatrical productions, even dinner theaters, dances and festivals.

The town also owns Rock Field Manor, a gracious stone home on five acres along Churchville Road at the southern end of Bel Air. It is a popular destination for weddings, festivals, reunions and holiday get-togethers. Expansion plans are in the works. The manor adjoins Rockfield Park, a community green space with gardens, trails, a playground and recreation fields.

Shamrock Park, adjacent to the Bel Air Town Hall, offers another opportunity for gatherings, particularly in its amphitheater or more familiarly, the band shell. The park is home to the town's annual arts festival.

Harford County has long planned a performing arts center, and volunteers are raising funds for such a project. But Bel Air is not waiting. When the county built the new $80 million Bel Air High School, the town successfully lobbied for including an expanded performing arts center that could accommodate larger community events. Bel Air contributed about half of the $2.5 million cost to add 260 additional seats, bringing the auditorium's seating capacity to 800. Lighting and sound equipment essential to arts events were also built into the auditorium.

The school, which opened in 2009, gives priority to student programs but allows the town to schedule several dates a year for traveling shows as well as groups such as the Bel Air Community Band and Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra.

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