When I came into office as Howard County Executive two years ago, my top goals were to make government more transparent and fiscally sound, and to improve the quality of life for all who live and work here. We have made tremendous strides in these areas, and we will continue to build upon our successes.
We have a top-ranked public school system, community college and library system. We enjoy beautiful parks, numerous amenities and an enviable location between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. These factors contribute to an economic environment that is competitive and full of opportunities. Our continued investment to not just sustain, but improve, our quality of life is what led to Columbia being ranked the No. 1 best place to live by Money Magazine.
We’ve worked on key initiatives to continue to attract high-paying jobs in fast-growing industries while helping existing industries succeed. Through efforts like the Local Business Initiative and Ag Innovation Grants, and projects such as the expansion of Route 32 and creation of RENEW Howard, we’re making sure Howard County continues to be a leader in the region.
In 2016, we added more than 4,000 new jobs in the county, and our unemployment rate decreased from 3.8% to 3.3%. Our commercial vacancy rates for both office and industrial facilities improved. We decreased the debt threshold for annual capital projects undertaken by the county, maintained our AAA bond rating and held the line on taxes.
The past year has seen numerous economic success stories, including the following.
• Coastal Sunbelt Produce moved into its newly constructed, 320,000-square-foot facility, marking the completion of a three-year project. When fully staffed, the company will employ more than 1,000 people.
• MedsStar Health announced it would retain its headquarters in Downtown Columbia, becoming the first tenant to sign on with the Howard Hughes Corp.’s Merriweather District project.
• Maryland Packaging is on its way to becoming the food hub for Maryland. The company is poised for growth, taking on an additional 40,000 square feet in the Troy Hill Business Park, and is expected to add 120 new jobs.
• Iron World, a family-owned manufacturer of security fencing located on Route 1, added 100,000 square feet of space and 67 new jobs.
• G. Cefalu’ & Bro. Produce broke ground on a new, 160,000-square-foot facility to house operations and distribution with plans to add 125 new jobs to its existing 225.
These are a handful of the county’s success stories. Many more of our 9,900 county-based businesses prospered in 2016, and we anticipate continued success in 2017.
It would be difficult to talk about the year without touching on the devastating flash flood in Ellicott City and the extraordinary rebuilding efforts of dozens of businesses on Main Street. A catastrophic event like this could knock a community down for years.
Yet, we had businesses reopening their doors after three weeks, reopened Main Street to vehicular traffic after two months and held an official reopening on Nov. 26, attracting more than 1,000 people. Sixty-six of 90 businesses have reopened, another 12 plan to reopen soon, and five new businesses have moved to Ellicott City.
We are a strong, resourceful and resilient community, with many, many residents and business owners who are willing to roll up their sleeves to get the job done. We are all extremely fortunate to live in this county and enjoy all it has to offer, including a strong local economy.
Moving forward, we have much to do. We are working on implementing the Downtown Columbia Plan, attracting a private firm to redevelop the Long Reach Village Center, exploring how to revitalize the Oakland Mills Village Center and working toward a public-private partnership that would allow us to build a new, much-needed Circuit Courthouse.
We continue to work with the committed staff of the HCEDA to attract and retain successful businesses and with the talented staff of Howard County Tourism & Promotion to market our county locally and beyond.
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far and excited about the work that lies ahead. By working together, I’m confident Howard County will remain a wonderful place to live, work, learn and play.