It’s amazing how time flies. I recall my swearing in as Howard County executive like it was yesterday. And now, we’ve completed the first year of my administration. We’ve made tremendous progress and have had many successes. There were challenges, such as the $15.8 million budget gap I inherited. Through fiscal discipline and better-than-expected revenues, we closed the gap and ended the year with a $3 million surplus — without negatively impacting the critical services we provide to our residents. The additional revenues allowed us to keep road resurfacing projects on schedule and provide critical funding to the Community Action Council to relocate and expand the Howard County Food Bank.
My fiscal 2016 budget, which was approved by the county council unanimously, continued this fiscal discipline, funding all of our shared priorities without increasing taxes for residents and businesses.
Sustaining our excellent quality of life will require that we build a community that can keep up with growth. To achieve that goal, we have made great strides in economic development to attract and retain thriving businesses.
In November, I signed an executive order creating the Howard County Local Business Initiative. We wanted to tangibly demonstrate our support of local businesses that provide jobs for our residents and the region and keep our tax base strong and growing. This initiative creates a process for us to certify Howard County companies and encourages county departments to spend procurement dollars locally.
We also worked with the Howard County Economic Development Authority and other agencies throughout the year to attract innovative businesses. Last year, our commercial vacancy rates were below 8% and our unemployment rate was 4%, ranking the county among the best in the state.
In 2015, construction in the county boomed — with almost 1 million square feet of new commercial space being built. Several companies expanded their operations, including Direct Energy, Thor Labs, Cefalu, IronNet and Tenable, which recently announced a $250 million investment in the county and the addition of more than 300 jobs during the next several years.
Downtown Columbia is continuing to grow. The Crescent Project is underway and the Metropolitan complex nearly complete; and renovations to the almost 50-year-old Merriweather Post Pavilion will ensure that it continues to be a world-class music venue. If you haven’t visited Downtown Columbia recently, I urge you to do so. You’ll be amazed.
Laurel Park Station, in North Laurel, is another exciting development, with 1,000 new units planned. Located next to Laurel Park, this transit-oriented development combines a mix of apartments, condominiums and townhouses, and includes 127,000 square feet of retail space and 650,000 square feet of office space. While this growth is great for our tax base, it also brings infrastructure challenges; during the past 20 years, the number of households in Howard County has increased from 79,000 to more than 110,000. We’ve added 87,000 new residents, including 16,000 additional students.
On that note, I’ve convened a 24-member task force to review the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). The task force will provide recommendations to improve the APFO, so that we can ensure that school construction, road capacity, public transportation, housing stock and public facilities keep up with this continued growth.
Also, I’ve made transportation infrastructure a top priority. Working with our regional partners, we’re looking at opportunities to improve our existing bus system, including exploring the possibility of Bus Rapid Transit along Route 29. The county is working with the state on the following projects.
- Widening northbound Route 29 from the Middle Patuxent River to Route 175
- Dualization of Route 32 from Route 108 to Linden Church Road
- Improving access to Columbia Gateway Business Park from Route 175
- Increasing the capacity on I-70 and upgrading the I-70/Marriottsville interchange.
Along with infrastructure improvements, I have prioritized the revitalization of aging neighborhoods and community centers.
We held several public meetings to gather input to develop an Urban Renewal Plan for the Long Reach Village Center. Our goal now is to attract a private developer to purchase and redevelop the 7.7-acre property. In addition, we’re working with Columbia Association to fund a feasibility study for the redevelopment of the Oakland Mills Village Center.
In Historic Ellicott City, we removed the unpopular parking meters and brought free Wi-Fi to Main Street to promote tourism and economic development. I also set aside $2.5 million to begin flood mitigation projects and set up the Historic Ellicott City Flood Working Group to help us develop long-term strategies.
We have an exciting year ahead, and I look forward to working with all stakeholders to ensure that our growth is sustainable and our excellent quality of life continues to get even better.
I have been honored each and every day to be your county executive, and I’m looking forward to a great 2016.
Allan Kittleman is the Howard County executive.