Less than two months out of office, former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is once again involved in regional economic development matters. The difference is that, this time, it’s as a private consultant.
Ulman launched Columbia-based Margrave Strategies in January, a venture that will focus on attracting employers and new jobs to Maryland and the mid-Atlantic region. Having lost the bid to become Maryland’s next lieutenant governor in last November’s gubernatorial election, Ulman said he found the prospect of waking up without an agenda for the day motivating.
“I told my young daughters that getting knocked down is never the end of the story. You get back up and refocus your energy,” he said. “When I looked at my skill sets and the needs of the marketplace, and when I had conversations with people about where those [factors] intersect, this seemed like a natural fit.”
Indeed, Ulman said he sees his new role as something akin to a freelance chief strategy officer, a position within academia, nonprofit and corporate organizations that focuses on discovering opportunities and implementing the strategies to achieve them.
“That’s the role I’ll be playing with my clients,” Ulman said.
Margrave Strategies Vice President Samantha O’Neil previously served as the former county executive’s special assistant and social media manager.
Laying a Foundation
It didn’t take Ulman long to find a lucrative first gig. The University of Maryland College Park (UMCP) Foundation hired Margrave Strategies in January, asking Ulman to serve as a strategist for economic development and growth both on and off campus, and to help enhance the institution’s role as a catalyst for the state’s innovation economy.
“I have often said the future of this university is tied to the future of the surrounding community, and we must make investments that spark economic development in College Park and across Maryland,” said UM President Wallace Loh. “We are pleased Ken is bringing his expertise from smart economic growth in Howard County here to our university and community.”
According to details published by the Baltimore Sun, the foundation’s hourly contract with Margrave Strategies could be worth up to $247,000 per year. Ulman has lined up other clients as well, but will initially concentrate the bulk of its efforts on the foundation’s requirements.
A UMCP press release specified that Ulman will work to diversify revenue streams and foster investment by businesses, philanthropies and venture capital firms in startups, incubators and programs at the university that can create jobs and spark growth.
Part of that task will entail bringing investment to the University Research Park and further developing the Route 1 Corridor into a vibrant college and commercial community.
“The nearly $1 billion in private and state supported construction expected around College Park in the next five years make the university an ideal location for innovation and economic development in Maryland,” said Peter Weiler, vice president of university relations at the University of Maryland and president, University of Maryland College Park Foundation.
Many of the attributes that could potentially bring the university in line with Silicon Valley and other tech-rich employment and research areas already exist.
“We have a lot of assets dedicated to large national and international research, a $1.8 billion operating budget and $500 million annually in external research funding,” said Brian Darmody, UM’s associate vice president for corporate and foundation relations. “Lots of things are happening simultaneously, and President Loh is leading our efforts to help commercialize technology at the university.”
Leadership is taking a holistic approach, recognizing the need for improvements to the areas surrounding the campus, “things that will attract [employees] and startups who want to be close to the campus,” Darmody said, including more nearby retail options and entertainment outlets.
A Whole Foods supermarket is already under construction south of the university, and Southern Management Corp. is expected to break ground this spring on The Hotel at the University of Maryland, a $115 million hotel and conference center on the campus’s east side.
A new Center for Computer Science and Innovation is also planned, thanks in part to a $31 million gift to the university from Brendan Iribe, co-founder of the Howard County-based virtual reality technology company Oculus.
The university is also poised to take advantage of the state’s new Regional Institution Strategic Enterprise Zone program, Darmody said.
Overseen by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, RISE Zones provide real property and income tax incentives to developers and businesses intended to encourage economic growth around colleges and universities.
Driving the Vision
Considering the region that Margrave Strategies will focus on, “each jurisdiction has its own strengths and challenges, but there are some shared trends,” Ulman said. “If anything, we’re too siloed. There is a real need to connect all the dots, with everyone working together to create a shared vision and drive, and that type of leadership has been lacking.”
With that in mind, UMCP is a good place to start “because it has a footprint in every region in this state,” Ulman said, opening it up to opportunity throughout the state.
One example, he said, could involve the university’s unmanned aircraft systems test site in Crisfield playing a role in Naval Air Station Patuxent River’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program.
“There are a number of ways the university is already playing a catalytic role, and it can certainly do more,” he said. “We need to be creating more new companies that emanate from within the university — not fighting for a piece of the pie, but enlarging the pie from within.”
Which means the significant role already played by the university’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology Advancement Program incubator could also likely expand.
Successful companies like Under Armour and M3D began on the campus, Ulman said. “We need more of these stories, and we also need more national companies that want to be located, grow and thrive near the university’s research park. I want to use my expertise and connections to help put the pieces together and drive that vision.”