Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Who Is Funding All This?

The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuits filed against the county are certainly a tenacious bunch. In the face of defeat, they simply soldier on with re-filings and appeals.

All this costs money. Filing fees alone are probably over a thousand bucks and then there are the traffic and planning consultants they’ve hired. Are they working for free?

Is Susan Gray providing her legal services pro bono?

Or is someone, like say a certain union, footing the bill?

Of course they are under no obligation to share this information but if the tables were turned I bet they’d ask the same questions.

An Evening with Pervez Musharaf

In August, Mama Wordbones suggested we sign up for the Baltimore Speaker Series this year and I jumped right at the idea. I’d thought about doing this before but something always got in the way. Last night, the first of seven lectures, the featured speaker was Pervez Musharaf, the former president of Pakistan.

Musharaf spoke about social and political developments over the past three decades in South Asia which includes Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Suffice it to say that his perspective of the issues and challenges facing this region were thoughtful and somewhat enlightening. His lecture lasted about an hour followed by a question and answer period. It was good brain food.

When we arrived at the Meyerhoff there was a small group of demonstrators outside shouting “Perez Dictator!”

Shouldn’t they have been shouting “Former Dictator?”

During the lecture a member of the audience, who claimed to be from Baluchistan, interrupted the former Pakistani leader several times before being ejected from the hall. This little bit geopolitical drama, though annoying, seemed oddly appropriate given the volatile nature of this region of the world.

Next up is Jean-Michel Cousteau on October 20th. So far so good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jobs Picture Improving in HoCo

While the national unemployment rate continues its climb into the double digits, the situation here in Howard County is decidedly better. According to this news report in Gazette.Net, the Howard County unemployment rate dropped to 5.4% from 5.7% last month.

Though things are improving here in the middle, the bookends of the corridor show how uneven this recovery is so far. Though it has improved marginally, Baltimore City still has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 11.1%. At the other end, Montgomery County has the lowest unemployment rate at 5.2%.

My New Friend Courtney

Courtney Watson and I are now friends, Facebook friends. This past Saturday she sent me a note that suggested “since you are interested in EC topics, thought you might want to connect on FB.”

Indeed I am interested in EC topics though I prefer to call it EC stuff. I confirmed our new relationship today.

I happen to like Courtney, even though I supported her Republican opponent, Tony Salazar, in the last election. Lately I’ve come to the conclusion that she is one of the more effective members on the council. Like another council member, my opinion of her has evolved. It’s probably a good thing too. She very well could end up being our county executive one of these days, just like her dad.

I still think her sister is a little nutty though.

Anyway, we’re friends now.

Tony who?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Creating Jobs

video

My partners and I are bucking conventional wisdom. As I have posted previously, we have begun construction on a 160,000 square foot speculative office building in the Emerson Corporate Commons near North Laurel.

Last Friday I visited the construction site and it suddenly struck me that our optimism about the future has created real jobs today. These aren’t jobs created by the federal government stimulus effort. These are jobs created by the private capital and a willingness to risk that capital.

This is exactly the type of thinking needed to avoid a jobless recovery.

Mobbie Voting Has Begun

The Sun’s popularity contest for local bloggers has entered into the voting stage. You can now cast your vote for your favorite blog in categories ranging from “Foodies” to “Misfits.”

HowChow (Foodie), Dinosaur Mom Chronicles (Personal & Family), and The Strobist (Photography) are all in the running for Mobbies. Tales of Two Cities (Neighborhood & Politics) has also been nominated.

Vote early, vote often and vote here.

Whee!

After I dropped my car off at Apple Ford this morning I spotted this car in the parking lot. At first I thought it was just another Smart car but upon closer inspection I saw that it was a Wheego.

That immediately reminded me of a joke.

Q: What did the snail say when it jumped on the back of a turtle?
A: Whee!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Feeling Festive in the Mill Town

The Ellicott City Fall Festival fared better than the Booty ride yesterday. The rains held off long enough to draw a sizeable crowd to the county seat for a picture perfect “autumnal” day.
Throughout the town there was stuff going on. I dropped by the beer garden in Tiber Alley and caught a little of Yvonne’s Wild Spirits performance. I ran into my buddy Haywood enjoying an outdoor libation.
Further up the street I caught a brief performance by the Crescendo String Ensemble along the banks of the Tiber River across the Howard County Tourism Office.
This year’s festival was a big improvement over last year. Last year the rain and the economy put a real damper on things. When the rain arrived in the late afternoon I sought refuge in the Pure Wine Café with some friends.
It was a perfect way to wrap up the festival.

Slogging Through the Night

Last night, as I climbed the stairs to nestle in a warm bed, my thoughts turned toward Columbia Gateway and the bike riders participating in the 24 Hours of Booty fundraiser for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. It was cold outside and the rain continued relentlessly. I couldn’t imagine how miserable they must be. I briefly awoke around 4 AM and it was still raining. The very thought chilled me. I pulled the covers up tight.

I dropped by yesterday around 5:30 PM and snapped these photos. As a harbinger of things to come, the rain and the race started at the same time, around 4:00 PM.


The riders I saw seemed undaunted though. Most appeared ready to make the most of it.

I wonder how they fared later.

This morning the weather gods finally came through as the rain stopped and the sun came out. At least they be able to finish in the sun.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Federal Lawsuit Update 3

This past Thursday, the county filed a Motion to Dismiss against Phillip Rousseau, et al., for their second federal lawsuit seeking to stop the development of the Wegmans grocery store in Columbia and the Harris Teeter grocery store in Turf Valley.

“Plaintiffs’ effort to duplicate their meritless claims and to consume the valuable time and resources of the Court and the Defendants is transparent. Plaintiffs are not availing themselves of federal jurisdiction to redress a cognizable claim. Rather, this second federal case demonstrates that they are engaged in a course of vexatious, frivolous litigation designed to harass and intimidate public officials and to simply delay and obstruct any development with which they personally disagree.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

News about News

I can’t believe this story by Larry Carson in The Sun warranted a spot on the front page of today’s paper. Columbia resident Anne Geddes is irate that CA won’t remove Fox News from the large screen televisions in the exercise rooms. Currently Fox is on three of the gyms 40 large screen televisions.

“Geddes said she's feeling brushed off and doesn't accept the explanation from association officials that Fox is the highest-rated cable news channel. She says that can't be the case in liberal-leaning Columbia, and she insists she is not giving up.”

Great. Another person who think she speaks for the “people of Columbia.”

I did like one of her points though. When challenged that removing Fox News might be censorship she countered that, "They won't show the Playboy channel".

Can we trade?

Some September Saturday Suggestions

There’s some fun stuff going on in HoCo this weekend. If you are up for a little “living locally” Columbia and Ellicott City both have good stuff going on.

In Ellicott City it’s the Fall Festival from noon until 5 PM on Saturday. The festive elements of this festival of fall include scarecrow making, a beer garden, a blacksmithing demo and live music by Yvonne’s Wild Spirits in Tiber Alley. The scarecrow making is sponsored by the Maryland Food Bank and scarecrow makers are requested to bring five cans of food for folks who may be facing a different kind of scary this fall.

The festival will be held rain or shine or hell or high water.

At 4 o’clock you should head on over to Columbia Gateway to witness the start of 24 Hours of Booty, a 24 hour cycling event of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Columbia and Charlotte, North Carolina are the only two cities to host this event.

The riders will loop continually around the 2 plus miles of Columbia Gateway Drive until Sunday at 4 PM.

I hope to get over there to snap some pictures to share early Saturday evening.

Dumping on King George

click to enlarge
I get some of my best post topics from talking to people. One of my people, lets call him BW for now, recently mentioned to me that the Alpha Ridge landfill is really more of transfer station than a landfill. The vast majority of the solid waste from Howard County that isn’t recycled is trucked 106 miles south to a landfill in King George, Virginia.

Everyday, trucks leave Marriottsville and take our garbage for a two hour ride down into the Virginia countryside. Though King George county is actually smaller in square miles (188) than Howard County (254) our population density (984 people per square mile) is much higher than theirs (93 people per square mile). I guess that leaves plenty of room for our shit.

Of course those nice folks down in King George aren’t exactly taking our garbage for nothing and I’m almost certain that their pricing doesn’t include shipping either.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Mall…38 Years Ago

Comments on this post about the latest remake of The Mall food court stirred the gray matter in this old dogs head. I was a Columbia teenager when the mall originally opened on August 2, 1971. It was the biggest thing to happen in Columbia ever.

What I most recall about that summer was the sudden availability of jobs. Up to that point, the teenage labor pool in Columbia was considerably larger than the teenage job pool. That all changed when the mall opened. Every teenager who wanted a job got a job. I was the stock boy in a store called Bathtique.

It was big for our parents too. For several of those early years a major summer social event was the Columbia birthday “Ball in the Mall.” The big party was held on a weekend night after the stores closed.

The poinsettia tree dates back to the beginning as well. It graced the fountain that first Christmas and continued uninterrupted until 2007 only to return again in 2008.

I can’t recall how or why she got it, but my mom was given this Lucite pyramid commemorating that milestone in Columbia’s history. Over the years, even after she moved out of Columbia, she kept it on display in her home.

Like I said, it was the biggest thing to happen in Columbia…ever.

Vacant but Not Available

I participated in a CoStar Advisory Board meeting for the Baltimore commercial real estate market yesterday. CoStar is the preeminent database for commercial properties. They conduct these quarterly meetings to get feedback from their users like me. It works both ways. I often pick up something from these meetings I didn’t know before.

Yesterday I found out what the story was with the vacant space between Costco and Staples at the Gateway Overlook shopping center in Columbia. This prime retail space has been empty since the shopping center opened three years ago yet there is no indication that it is available for lease.
It turns out that it is leased. In fact, it has been leased since the center was completed by REI. They’ve just never occupied. It doesn’t look like they are planning to do so any time soon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The End is Coming Sooner Than He Thinks

Columbia’s most popular panhandling intersection has a new resident lately. You sort of have to admire his laid back approach though the message on his hand lettered sign is somewhat bellicose.
Forget 2012, this guy should be more concerned with October 1st.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rich Man Poor Man

According to this story by Brent Jones in The Sun, Maryland is still the richest state in the nation. Citing new census date, the article reports that statewide median household income rose $1,500 over the previous year to $70,545.

Ironically, the state may also lead in poverty rates.

“Poverty figures that are usually simultaneously released with the income numbers are being held another week after an error was found in the reporting. Typically, the state also has one of the country's highest poverty rates.”

As Mr. Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Food Court Makeover

The food court in the Mall is getting a makeover. It’s been a few years since the last one. Part of the renovation includes new flooring which appears to be some type of polyurethane poured floor. My guess is that this will be easier to maintain than the wood flooring it replaces.

And speaking of the food court, now that Five Guys is open I can share something I learned about their French fries. While some folks rave about the fact that they are fried in peanut oil, they still pack a wallop to the waistline. A regular order of fries has 620 calories and 30 grams of fat.

My cardiologist would not approve.

Mary Kay and Friends

Last night Mary Kay Sigaty held a fundraiser at Oakland in Town Center. Though she hasn’t formally announced, it is widely expected that she will run for a second term for the District 4 seat on the county council.

This was a big night for Mary Kay. Up until last evening the Maryland Elections Center website showed that, so far for this election cycle, she has only raised $150.00 while spending $545.00. This amount pales in comparison to the monies raised by her council colleagues. Calvin Ball and Courtney Watson have both raised over $40,000.00 while Jen Terrasa and Greg Fox have raised around $30,000.00 each. Judging from last night’s crowd I’d say she picked up at least $5,000.00.

It wasn’t just the money though. What was also impressive was the number of community and political leaders that turned out to support her including State Senator Ed Kassemeyer. Mr Ed is a staunch ally of Liz Bobo, who has been working behind the scene to get someone to challenge Mary Kay. Liz reportedly was somewhere in Croatia and therefore was not able to attend.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What’s the Rush?

Some critics of General Growths push for legislation allowing them to remake Town Center in Columbia have questioned what the big hurry is. They point out that since the company is currently in bankruptcy it is unlikely to be able to secure the financing to do anything in the near term anyway.

On the contrary, there is plenty they can do and should be doing right now.

For one, they can begin the arduous and time consuming process of getting site plan approvals for their proposed new layout of buildings and roads. With this in hand they’d be able to aggressively pursue some build to suit requirements such as the national healthcare organization that is presently considering several local sites for a 160,000 square foot office building.

Make no mistake, time is running out on this plan. Despite the bankruptcy, which has resulted in some painful layoffs at GGP, Greg Hamm, the Columbia General Manger, has been able to hold his core development team for Columbia together. That cannot have been easy. If he is unable to show some progress in moving these plans forward, there is a distinct possibility that the company could simply cut their losses and move on. They have already done that with other development projects.

That being said, things are looking up. Last week, despite the efforts of certain planning board members to derail the Town Center plans by inaction and incompetence, ZRA 113 has finally been forwarded to the County Council for final approval.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Misrepresentation

Just a thought but isn’t the claim by the Howard County Citizens Association to be “the voice of the people of Howard County” a gross misrepresentation?

I have my own voice thank you very much.

Perhaps they should change their tag line to read “the voice of about 200 people in Howard County.”

Or how about this one: “County curmudgeons carping incessantly.”

Any other suggestions?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Parking Mea Culpa

This may come as a surprise to some readers of Tales of Two Cities but I am willing to admit it when I get something wrong. I’m human. It happens.

Today I’m admitting I got the Ellicott City parking thing wrong.

In previous posts and in my Business Monthly column I have strongly advocated for a new parking deck in what is now Public Parking Lot D behind the old Post Office on Main Street. I was not alone in this thinking. The Ellicott City Master Plan, published in 2003, reached the same conclusion. While I still believe more parking is critical to maintaining a healthy business environment in the historic district, I no longer believe a deck in Lot D is a good idea.
I credit the merchants who have put together the Second Sunday Market for altering my view. They have shown that this open space in the center of town can be much more than just a surface parking lot. In a town defined by tight spaces dictated by the natural features of rivers and ravines, this central open flat space offers a welcome respite.

I have come to the conclusion that a parking deck in this area would destroy that. I was wrong. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Impeach Allen Dyer

I meant to write something about this earlier in the week so please forgive the delayed reaction. In my opinion, Howard County School Board member, Allen Dyer, is a seriously misguided man.

According to this story by Dan Schwind in The Columbia Flier, Allen Dyer thinks the school system is a better judge of what our kids should be exposed to than their parents. Commenting on the school systems decision to give parents discretion as to whether or not their children would be allowed to see President Obama’s message to students he had the audacity to say that parents should not be allowed to censure what their children are exposed to.

“This is not something that should be condoned,” he said. “I don’t think it couples with the board’s policy of dealing with controversial issues. We should not give parents the right to censor what their children see, because that’s what this is: censorship.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I think every kid should hear positive messages about the importance of education, particularly when it comes from the president. That being said, when a school official believes the state can trump parental rights it is a direct threat to our society.

With this philosophy Dyer has clearly demonstrated that he is unfit to serve on the Board of Education. Can a board member be impeached?

Simon Ready to Pounce on GGP Assets

Earlier this year several analysts suggested that Simon Property Group was in a good position to acquire some malls from General Growth Properties. Simon has weathered the current financial crisis relatively unscathed with plenty of cash to go asset shopping. According to this article from AllBusiness, Simon is on pretty solid ground.

“For the 12 months ended March 31, 2009, Simon recorded over $1.8 billion in operating cash flow. In addition, Simon maintains strong access to a wide variety of external capital sources. In 2009, the company has raised approximately $3.1 billion of external capital, including two series of common equity, two series of senior unsecured notes, and two mortgage loans. Pro forma for the capital raises in second-quarter 2009 to date, Simon had approximately $2.9 billion in cash on hand and approximately $3 billion in availability under its committed bank credit facility. As such, Fitch calculates Simon's liquidity surplus to be approximately $3.5 billion on a pro forma basis from March 31, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2010.”

On Tuesday, according to this story in Bloomberg, Simon CEO, David Simon, said the company is closely watching the availability of properties from GGP and may swoop in to cherry pick some malls.

Simon has already has a strong local presence. They own the Arundel Mills mall by BWI airport.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Good Plan but Can CA Execute?

I don’t often compliment the Columbia Association but after reviewing the proposed redesign of Symphony Woods on the CA website I have to say, “nice job.”

Cy Paumier and John Slater have presented a master plan for the park that is far better than the amateur hour plan put forth by Harper’s Choice Columbia Council rep, Cindy Coyle, a little over a year ago.

The only major problem I see is the proposed location of a café. As shown in the schematic site plan above, the café would be located deep into the park tight along the property line with Merriweather Post Pavilion. I’m not clear as to whether this would be a year round or seasonal operation. If it is conceived to be a seasonal operation, I doubt an operator could generate enough revenue to pay its own way which would probably require some sort of subsidy. That is seldom a recipe for success.

If the thinking is for this café to be a year round operation it would most likely struggle in the winter months. It is too far removed from the office buildings, the parking area is not adjacent and, for now at least, there isn’t enough close by residential population to sustain it through the year.

It also appears that not enough thought has been given to the actual operation of a café. A food service operation would require a dumpster and some type of delivery area. I didn’t see any of that in the pretty pictures.

Still, overall it’s a pretty good plan and Cy and John, as well as Bob Tennenbaum and Phil Engelke are to be applauded for their efforts. The real challenge will be in seeing whether CA can actually execute or will these plans gather dust in some storage room.

More importantly, whatever they do will require that they work closely with GGP since they own the land in the middle of the donut and all around the edges.

Another Way to Look At It

click to enlarge

I like aerial photographs. In my business they are an essential tool and we have aerial coverage of the entire Baltimore Washington corridor.

Last night I decided to zoom in on the Doughoregan Manor property to add some perspective to the conversation about the proposed development on the eastern portion of their land.

Basically, the Carroll family is surrounded by subdivisions. Keeping as much of this buffer intact is in the best interests of everyone.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Put Your Pay Cut Where Your Mouth Is

Delegate Shane Pendergrass thinks the “top officials” of the Howard County Public School System “ought to take a pay cut to help avoid facing the General Assembly's wrath when members convene in January to confront a looming fiscal 2011 shortfall…”

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun, the delegate from District 13 in Howard County thinks the school officials should “think about what message they want to send.”

And it isn’t like the school officials haven’t already made cuts in their compensation.

“Cousin said Wednesday that all senior school officials salaries were frozen this year, and administrators have stopped taking expense money for milage, a savings of thousands of dollars to the board's budget.”

Delegates make $43,500.00 for ninety days work. Shane claims that she has given back eight days pay like all other state employees. If she wants to set an example that’s a pretty insignificant amount considering it is a part time job. I believe delegates get some other pretty nice perks as well.

Hey Shane, how about leading by example and giving up something significant before asking others to make sacrifices?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Let the Games Begin

One year from now we will be in the final stretch of local elections for county executive, county council, state delegates and state senate. As of this past July, candidates could begin filing with the Board of Elections. So far, John Bailey has announced his intention to run for state delegate in District 12B and Ed Priola has announced his intention to run for delegate in District 13. It is widely presumed that the incumbents in those districts will also be running for reelection.

There is still plenty of time and around the county various players are starting to test the waters and jockeying for position. Previously I posted about rumors that Alan Klein would challenge Mary Kay Sigaty for her District 4 council seat in the Democratic primary. In his own words Alan says while he has been asked to run, “At this point, I have said yes to no one on this issue.”

Yes to no one?

Other rumors floating around out there are that Dennis Schrader will reenter the local scene by challenging Jen Terrasa for her District 3 council seat. Dennis previously served on the council from 1994 to 1998. He also served as former Governor Robert Ehrlich’s Director of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2007.

Robert Flanagan, another local Republican heavyweight is rumored to be contemplating a run for Courtney Watsons District 1 council seat. Bob also served in the Ehrlich administration as the Secretary of Transportation. Prior to that he was a member of the House of Delegates where he chaired the Howard County Delegation from 1991 until 1996. That’s no small feat for a Republican in a county delegation dominated by the Democrats.

Thus the local political games begin. More hats will soon be tossed into ring and some rumors will actually morph into official announcements. As I said, there is still plenty of time. The deadline for filing is July 6, 2010.

Jay Has Fun with Dick

I didn’t catch this because I was watching Monday Night Football but my colleague Bill Harrison did. On the debut of the Jay Leno Show, The Business Monthly and local attorney Dick Talkin were featured in his Headlines segment. Leno held up a copy of the article “Q and A with Local Attorney Dick Talkin” which also had Dick’s picture and proceeded to have a little fun with his name.

Update: Here's the video...

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Doughoregan 300

Painting by Alice Webb

Since Erickson Retirement Communities backed out of a deal this past summer to purchase 188 acres of the 892 acre historic Doughoregan Manor property, the owners have been exploring other development options. Doughoregan Manor is the family home of Charles Carroll of Carleton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and his descendents still reside on the National Historic Trust property. The family has indicated that it needs the proceeds from development in order to restore the historic buildings.

According to this story by Jennifer Broadwater in The Columbia Flier, the new plan calls for the construction of 300 to 325 new single family homes.

“The latest development plan, though still in the early stages, would build between 300 and 325 single-family houses on the eastern side of the property, while preserving the bulk of the rest of the land, including the historic mansion, through the county’s farmland preservation program. In addition, the landowners would donate 34 acres to the county to expand Kiwanis-Wallas Park, which abuts the property.”

This proposal is bound to elicit opposition from neighboring communities as the family seeks to rezone a portion of the land to from Rural Conservation to Residential Environmental District. Still, it is seems to be a fair and reasonable request that would also place two thirds of the land into the county’s agricultural preservation program. While their neighbors sold off their farms for housing, the Carroll’s have continually fought to maintain some semblance of the original rural character of the area.

Mobbie Wannabe

The Sun has decided to begin recognizing local blogs. Today the paper began accepting nominations for “The Mobbies: Maryland’s Outstanding Blogs.”

Cute name huh?

So far, two HoCo blogs have already been nominated, HowChow and Columbia Maryland’s Future. Nominations will be accepted through Friday, September 25th at 5:00 PM. Voting on the nominees will commence on Monday, September 28th at 8:00 AM and continue through Friday, October 9 at 5:00 PM. You can nominate blogs and vote here.

In The Sun’s own words, “vote early and often.”

State of Play

Mama Wordbones and I signed on to play in an adult coed softball league this fall. We play our games on Thursday nights under the lights at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia and Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge. Our team is a neighborhood team and we felt that this was a good way to connect with more folks in our community.

So far, three weeks into the season, the teams we’ve played include a team of employees from Transportation Management Services and a team of what I’d refer as softball mercenaries that were most recently sponsored by Micros. The softball mercenaries are group of men and women who play as much as they can, often in more than one league at a time. While the TMS team plays for employee camaraderie the mercenaries play simply for the love of the game. It’s all good. While the teams were competitive they all practiced good sportsmanship.

Last week, as we arrived at Cedar Lane Park for our 8:15 PM game, two other teams, the Ramrods and the Repeat Offenders, had just finished a game where good sportsmanship got left in the dust. The police had even been called to settle things down. I wasn’t present to witness what actually transpired but apparently things quickly got out of hand after a base runner for the Repeat Offenders plowed into the basemen for the Ramrods. The umpire, after receiving a good deal of verbal abuse, called the game which resulted in even more bad behavior from some of the players.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me. One, I hope we don’t play these guys. Two, I hope upon reflection, these adults who decided to behave like children last Thursday evening, felt embarrassed enough with their behavior and later made all necessary apologies. If not, I think it would be appropriate given our local ideal of choosing civility, for the county softball commissioner to ban them from playing in any county sponsored league.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Back in Action

Yesterday, driving through Town Center, I noticed that the Exxon station at Banneker Road and Little Patuxent Parkway had reopened after being closed since last May. The place was buzzing with new energy and fairly decent gas prices.

It’s always nicer to post about an opening than a closing.

Seasonal Offering at Second Sunday

This morning Mama Wordbones and I went out for our morning coffee to the Little French Market in Ellicott City. When we arrived we saw signs reminding us that tomorrow will be the third edition of the Second Sunday Market. Later as we walked our dogs across the parking to the Good Life shops we ran into Randy, the proprietor and one of the impresarios of the Second Sunday Market. Randy informed us that three new vendors had signed on for tomorrow’s monthly outdoor market including someone who will be providing flu shots.

Now that is what I call a seasonal offering!

The weather tomorrow is supposed to perfect so if you are not heading into Baltimore for the first home game of my favorite football team, you might want to consider an outing in the old town between 10 AM and 3 PM.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Scene This Week In…

Last week I noticed that the large “Welcome to Ellicott City” sign painted on the CSX railroad bridge on the county line had recently been repainted. It looks great. I knew by looking closely at the lower right hand corner of the sign and seeing “HCFR 2A” that the local fire department had something to do with this.

A quick visit to Fire Station 2 on Montgomery Road in Ellicott City revealed the story. There, in the main corridor of the station, is a newspaper article from October 2003 and a large picture of six firefighters and paramedics perched above the 1931 railroad bridge and it’s newly painted welcome sign.

The project was the brainchild of firefighter and paramedic, Wendy McCord who first fell in love with Ellicott City back in 1993 when she was a student at UMBC in Catonsville. She cajoled Captain Bill Rosier, Lieutenant Joe Ross, Ashley Tarfufo, Larry Yates and Tim Hann into helping her transform an often graffiti covered railroad bridge into a welcoming gateway to the mill town and the county. It took her 11 months to secure all the approvals needed to get the job done. Duron donated the paint and Home Depot donated the supplies.

Six years later the appropriately colored “caboose red” sign needed a spruce up. This time Wendy did the job solo. Nice job Wendy!

Earlier this week I wrote a post about the “green” parking spaces at the new Medical Pavilion office building on the Howard County General Hospital campus. I also went inside the building to check out the lobby.

The lobby is actually a two story affair with the lower portion featuring a nice seating area for visitors. Just outside this seating area is an outdoor rock garden. When I took a closer look I was surprised to find that some folks had already taken to creating rock sculptures like people have been doing in the Patapsco River in Ellicott City.

I don’t know if the building architect intended his rock garden feature to be used in this manner but it certainly is an interesting consequence of his design.

September 11, 2001

This morning, listening to the various recollections of 9/11 on the radio, I couldn’t help but recall my own experience eight years when the world suddenly went still. Like many, I vividly remember where I was and how I first heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. I was at the Riverside coffee shop on Dobbin Road having just finished a conference call with the real estate folks at BB&T. My colleague Rob Freedman called me with the news. I initially dismissed it as being not that big of a deal.

No sooner had I arrived at our offices by BWI airport than the second plane hit. It was now apparent that this was in fact a very big deal. We soon closed up the office and headed over to Jilly’s (now Dave & Busters) at Arundel Mills to watch was happening on their big TV’s. The restaurant was full of business people and more than a few pilots and flight attendants from the airport which by now was shut down. Rumor started going around that they were shutting down I-95 so I decided to head home to Columbia before it was too late.

Arriving back at my Vantage Point neighborhood, I soon became restless and wanted to do something, anything besides watching the repeated images of the crashing planes. I decided to head over to the Red Cross office in Town Center to donate blood. I soon discovered that many of my neighbors had the same thought. By 2:00 PM, the line to give blood snaked from the office entrance all the way down to Little Patuxent Parkway. Still more people were camped out around the building. It was as if people just wanted to be around other people. They stayed there into the evening. The Red Cross personnel and a local realtor set up a TV outside the offices so that everyone who was still there could watch President Bush address the country that evening.

In that moment of tragedy there was something very reassuring about our community and its response. Based on my own personal experience, I wrote this column for October 2001 issue of the Business Monthly.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Escape to China

In the strange but funny news category there is this report by Erin Julius in The Herald-Mail from Hagerstown. It seems that two inmates from the Maryland Correctional Training Center in that town walked away from a work detail last Friday and ended up at Browns Motel in Ellicott City where they surrendered without incident on Tuesday.

The escapees were staying in the China room. The motel website describes it thusly:

“Travel to the Orient by staying in this majestic red room decorated with authentic Chinese furnishings that reflect the East.”

I wonder if they specifically requested this particular room. The motel offers nine different themed rooms that “offer the ambiance and décor of far away lands: Paris, China, Tropical Tahiti, Africa, India, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Cape Cod and Mexico.”

My buddy Jim Binckley points out that Howard County had a positive effect on the escapees. They choose civility by surrendering peacefully when the knock came to their China room door.

Browns Motel has been hosting county visitors since 1946. Maryland Correctional Training Center has been hosting detainees since 1966.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Krispy Kreme Kaput

On my way into work this morning I noticed that the Krispy Kreme donut shop in the Columbia Crossing shopping center had brown paper covering all the windows.

That’s rarely a good sign.
Upon closer inspection I found a notice taped to the door informing donut denizens that the store was in fact closed.
As they exited the premises they left a trail of sprinkles in their wake.

A Nice Thought But…

Driving by the new Medical Pavilion office building on the Howard County General Hospital campus I noticed a special parking near the front entrance of the building. Instead of white stripes the spaces were lined in blue. A sign designated these spaces for “Fuel Eff Low Emit Parking.”

I counted at least seven vehicles parked in these spaces that probably didn’t qualify.

I think part of the problem is the sign.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Soil Conservation District Dust Up

Two weeks ago the Howard County Soil Conservation District put all county development plans on hold when they determined they could no longer financially support the review of sediment and erosion control plans. They claimed to have suddenly run out of money to perform this task. This so called “independent agency” receives over a half million dollars a year from the county for this work. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun, the county also furnishes the district with “two vehicles, gasoline, repairs, telephone and computer support, and administrative services for purchasing, office supplies, plus benefits for five employees at the Woodbine office. Just how independent does that make them?

The thing is, the sediment control and erosion reviews could easily be performed instead by the county and that is exactly what Ken Ulman thinks should be done. Earlier this year he attempted to shift this work to the Planning and Zoning department where it logically belongs. He withdrew this plan in the face of political heat generated by Robert Ensor, the soil district manager. Robert wrapped himself in the self righteous cloak of defender of the earth to keep this bounty from the county. He insists that the county needs an “independent agency” to basically oversee sediment fences at construction sites.

“That bill failed amid claims by Ensor that it represented a power grab that would threaten the independence of his agency. Ensor won that round, but in April Ulman cut the funds for the two reviewers from his proposed budget at the district's request, said budget director Raymond S. Wacks. Ensor said the agency would charge its own fees to builders to raise money for the two workers, though Wacks argued it would be very expensive to provide the same benefits the county offers and there was no guarantee there would be enough work to generate adequate fees for two salaries.”

The Soil Conservation District is a throwback to the Great Depression. It was created back at a time when most Maryland counties were dominated by agriculture “to advise farmers on how to avoid the kind of erosion that helped create huge dust storms in the 1930"s.”

It isn't about the environment. Its about the money.

Failure to Slide

A regular visitor of Tales of Two Cities sent me this photo from her neighborhood this morning.

With the county’s new slide schedule, the recycling day for this neighborhood would actually be tomorrow.

I know how she feels. In my own neighborhood several neighbors have put out their trash as they normally would on a Tuesday instead of paying heed to the county’s much publicized slide schedule.

Admittedly, I screwed up the first time this was implemented. After that Mama Wordbones tacked up the postcard from public works explaining the program on the garage wall. It worked. I’m happy to report that we were not among the neighbors who put their garbage out to the curb this morning!

A wag of the tail goes out to Small Madeline for her report from the streets.

More Good News on Jobs

It widely believed that our area will recover from the current “Great Recession” sooner that the rest of nation. Today there is more news that seems to validate this belief. According to this story by V. Dion Haynes in The Washington Post this morning, “the Washington area economy could be on its way to a rebound faster than most of the nation.”

"By the end of the year, the area is expected to experience a net loss of 21,000 jobs, said John McClain, senior fellow at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. But in the next few years, McClain added, the region is expected to see net gains in jobs: 23,900 in 2010; 34,900 in 2011; 42,000 in 2012; 47,600 in 2013; and 53,300 in 2014."

Now that’s a good way to start the work week on a positive note.

Monday, September 07, 2009

At the Principals Discretion

Ellicott Mills Middle School will show it but Oakland Mills High School won’t. I’m referring to President Obama’s speech to students tomorrow which will be broadcast over the internet. The Howard County Public Schools Office of School Administration has left the decision as to whether it will be seen in the schools to each individual school principal.

I’m really having a hard time understanding why there is even any question as to whether to let the county public school students see this speech. The President has indicated that the speech will be about the importance of education. According to the email I received from Michael Goins, Peanuts principal, the presidential address “will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning. He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens.”

What is wrong with that?

Plenty, according to some parents. In an online poll being conducted by The Sun, sentiment is equally divided. Out the 2,046 responses so far, 49.5% think it is proper for the president to speak to the students and 46.6% think it isn’t.

Have we become so politically polarized that an address by our duly elected president about the importance of education is somehow controversial?

What lesson do we impart to the next generations by stifling a speech from our president?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Bird Watching

Last week, as I was driving through the parking lot of the Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City, I spotted this vintage Ford Thunderbird. The combination of the finish on this fifties era T-Bird (I’m guessing 1957) with the late summer light of dusk was really quite nice.

The license plate frame read “I’m Not Spoiled. I’m Not. I’m Not. I’m Not.”

Planning Board Redeems Itself

After nine months, the Howard County Planning Board has finally reached at least a partial decision on General Growth Properties’ master plan for the redevelopment of Columbia Town Center. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, the “conceptual” portion of the plan has been approved.

“The plan calls for up to 5,500 new residential units, 4.3 million square feet of office space, 1.25 million square feet of retail space, new hotels, parking garages, environmental and roadway improvements and new cultural buildings.”

Perhaps the most significant imprint of the Planning Boards drawn out deliberations is the recommendation that that 5,500 housing units be allowed “only if added infrastructure can support them.”

A key piece of that “added infrastructure” is a new interchange at US Route 29 and Broken Land Parkway that would replace the existing South Entrance Road.
In this illustration of GGP’s plan, a new feeder road is shown connecting the west bound and east bound ramps from US Route 29 to Broken Land Parkway to the proposed Crescent neighborhood behind Merriweather Post Pavilion. Presumably the enhancements to this interchange will need something more this but since I’m not privy to any illustration that shows the full interchange I’ll reserve comment. The Planning Board has also indicated that a direct connection to Oakland Mills would be desirable.

That connection to Oakland Mills could also take the shape as something other than a traditional road such as one limited to some form of mass transit and pedestrian traffic.

And more importantly, where does the funding of all these road improvements come from?

Will Columbia now find itself competing with Konterra for state transportation dollars?

We’ve got a long way to go before we see any physical transformation of Town Center.

Still, this is progress and this action from the Planning Board gets a wag (not a big wag) of the wordbones tail on this gorgeous Labor Day weekend.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Motion Denied

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge J. Frederic Motz has denied the motion by Susan Gray on behalf of Paul F. Kendall, et al to reconsider his decision to dismiss their lawsuit. The suit claimed the county had denied their First Amendment Rights when the Board of Elections invalidated their petition to stop Harris Teeter from opening a store in Turf Valley.

You may recall that this petition had more flies on it than week old garbage.

In her other federal lawsuit challenging the Wegmans store in Columbia the county has finally been served. Based on her track record I strongly suspect it will have a similar outcome.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Another Corporate HQ for Columbia

It must be my day for green energy posts. According to this item from Citybiz Real Estate, a biofuels company is relocating its corporate headquarters from Lake Mary, Florida to Columbia.

New Generation Biofuels is moving to 5850 Waterloo Road into the same building that houses Donna’s restaurant.

The Taking of Worthington Park

About a year ago, with much fanfare, County Executive Ken Ulman announced that the county would be creating a “solar farm” on Worthington Park next to Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City.

Personally, I wasn’t real happy about this program. The site he chose is the best part of my morning running route. It is also happens to be a county park.

It wasn’t always a park. Worthington Park was created on what used to be the county dump before it was moved to Alpha Ridge.

After all the years that this neighborhood bore the indignity of hosting the county’s garbage this plan seems patently unfair. The old dump has since been capped and the land has been turned over to the Department of Recreation and Parks. Now comes news that county is seeking proposals from private energy developers to develop a “solar farm” on the most accessible piece of the park.
This morning, like most mornings, folks like Jenny and her dog Bo were out for a morning stroll around the half mile gravel loop road that rings the top of the former landfill.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for clean solar power. The problem is that the energy generated by a 7 acre solar farm is pretty insignificant. It will basically provide some but certainly not all of the energy needs of Worthington Elementary School. This effort smells more like a public relations stunt than a serious effort towards energy conservation.

I had actually hoped that this project had died a quiet death, a victim to county budget cuts. Unfortunately it lives. The county will soon be issuing a Request for Proposals from private firms to move this forward. If all goes according to plan, the taking of Worthington Park could begin in the next year.

The Bentleys Roll into Town

The Bentleys rolled into Ellicott City this morning. The old mill town was the official starting point for the vintage car tour that will cruise up to New England then back down to Williamsburg until finally culminating on the Eastern Shore in late September.
It was a picture perfect morning in Howard County and many folks took advantage of that and turned out to give the old cars a good send off.

The first Bentley on the scene was this 1954 vintage model owned by Gene Sauter of Ellicott City. Gene isn’t participating in the tour but when he heard about the tribal gathering of Bentley owners he couldn’t resist bringing his down to see its cousins


The inside joke with the Bentley crowd is that Rolls Royce’s have owners while Bentleys have drivers.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Good Neighbors

I met with Bita Dayhoff today. Bita is the acting President of the Howard County Community Action Council. In that role she oversees the operation of the Food Bank. In case you hadn’t heard, the Food Bank is having a tough summer. I wrote a column about this problem back in July. Last month, in the Howard County Times, Janene Holzberg reported that in the “first six months of 2009, the Food Bank distributed 200,000 pounds of food to 3,500 households. During the same period last year, 160,000 pounds were handed out to 2,850 families.”

The problem is that while the need has increased, donations have decreased.

“Meanwhile, about 90,000 pounds of food were collected from January through June of this year compared to 100,000 pounds during the same period in 2008.”

The good news is that this publicity about the Food Banks plight has resulted in a surge in donations. Last month the food bank received over $6,000.00 in donations. According to Bita the donations came in large and small amounts indicating a broad spectrum of community support.

To keep this in perspective, summer is typically the slowest time of year for donations. Nice going neighbors!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Lyndwood In, Owen Brown Out?

I came across this news item on CNBC about the closing of some Starbucks kiosks in Giant grocery stores, I wondered if any of the local stores would be affected. Unfortunately, neither the Starbucks website nor the Giant website was any help.
I thought perhaps the one located at the Lyndwood Square Shopping Center in Elkridge was on the chopping block because they had blocked the sign with plants.

Not so according to the barista guy working there yesterday. He did tell me that Owen Brown was on the chopping block but I haven’t verified that yet.

In some cases the vacated kiosks will be replaced with Dunkin Donut kiosks while others will get vending machines.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Now What?

Last night the County Council voted unanimously to approve CB 29, the so called village center redevelopment legislation. This bill and its myriad of amendments establish new guidelines and procedures for the owners of the village centers if they decide to redevelop their properties. A key provision of the bill is the removal of General Growth Properties from the gatekeeper role. Up until this point, only GGP could petition for any changes in the village center even though it did not own any of the village centers. This provision was a holdover from the days before GGP’s predecessor, The Rouse Company, sold out the village centers to Kimco Realty Corporation.

Of course, not everyone is happy. Those wishing to keep Columbia preserved as some sort of relic of sixties planning think the council did not do enough. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, some folks think this spells the end of the village centers because it allows a residential component to be added to a redevelopment program. In particular, Lloyd Knowles said “allowing major residential uses in the village centers will mean owners have less incentive to find ways to attract new stores.”

I don’t quite get that. Even Jim Rouse recognized the compatibility of residential and retail uses in village centers. The second village center built in Columbia, Harpers Choice Village Center, included apartments from the very beginning.

Anyway, the passage of this legislation doesn’t mean the village center situation is likely to change anytime soon. The stronger centers like Dorsey’s Search, River Hill and Kings Contrivance are unlikely candidates for redevelopment. The weaker centers like Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills will likely continue to struggle. The one two punch of lackluster retail demand and constriction in the capital markets for real estate projects mean that any redevelopment program for these centers is likely years away.

Still, this is progress. As they say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

In This Months Business Monthly

I never really got Twitter but at least I can say I gave it a shot. Some people sign up and then never do anything with it. That wasn’t me. I actually posted on the service 64 times since last April. I even signed on to follow a 17 people, though I can’t say that I ever really “followed” them. Wow, even as I write that it sounds like stalking!

Don’t get me wrong. Even though I titled my column “Real Men Don’t Tweet” I really have nothing against it. My sister Maura is the general sales manager of WHQT in Miami. She tells me that Twitter has helped her land new business.

“Some companies use Twitter for consumer interaction, they post specials, they talk about new services so I use twitter to make a direct connection. In many cases the Twitter(er) for the company is a major player and they like the direct connection.”

I can’t say that it worked that way for me. To me it was just another thing that ate up my most precious commodity, time.

The only time I really enjoyed using Twitter was while sitting at a county council hearing. It was like whispering comments about the proceedings to friend…only quieter.

So I’m decoupling from Twitter. At least that’s my plan. You can read this months column here.

Rebooty

I got a new laptop today. It was time. My old Toshiba Tecra was getting pretty hinky. Already I had performed surgery on it when the power button stopped working. I didn’t trust my repair enough to put the cover plate back on after I got it working.
Today our computer guy showed up with my new HP 6730b Notebook PC. I didn’t exactly pick this machine out, Mike did. Mike is our computer guy. He told me it was a good fit for me and I blindly followed his advice.

I was a little leery of the HP though. Years back I owned a Compaq and it was really a piece of junk. Ironically, I replaced that laptop with an HP desktop and I was pretty happy with machine. I wasn't sure what to expect out of the combined company.

Anyway, the best thing about buying it from Mike is that he takes care of everything like transferring my old stuff to the new machine and getting the thing to make nice with the office server. Even with his service mark up and a three year “drop kick” warranty it still ended up to be about $900 cheaper than my old Toshiba was four years ago

The worst thing about my new computer is that even with the capable assistance of Mike I still have the new computer blues. It’s kind of like moving into a new house and realizing, long after the movers have left, that you are missing some of your stuff.

What’s Up with You These Days?

It’s been a few months since I last asked that question so I thought it was about time to check in on you again. I like to share what I know about you so you can see what you look like from my end of the conversation. Sure I read the comments but the truth is that most blog readers don’t comment.

So who are you non commenting readers?

Again, I really don’t know that much about you. What I do know is what I get from two separate measurement services I employ. One of them is Site Meter. At the bottom of the screen there is Site Meter icon under the heading “Readership Stuff”. If you click on it anytime you can see nifty little charts like this one that show how many of you have visited Tales of Two Cities over the past twelve months.
That at least tells me that there are more of you now than there was a year ago.

I also use Google Analytics to see what you’re about. That measurement device tells me that, in the last thirty days, Tales of Two Cities had 3,485 “absolute unique visitors” out of a total of 7,590 visits. Over 1,500 of you have visited here more than 200 times. The top five cities you come from are Ellicott City (915), Columbia (692), Baltimore (533), Laurel (433) and Washington DC (420). The average time you spend here is 6:38 minutes.

Recently, another local blogger lamented about the lack of interest in local blogs. I disagreed with him. I think there is plenty of interest but not enough consistent bloggers. Out of the 17 more popular local blogs listed in the right side column only about 10 are posting with enough regularity to build any kind of audience. I get that. It isn’t easy keeping a blog active.

The bottom line is that I am grateful to all of you who visit here. Your growing number indicates to me that there is a ready audience for this kind of local stuff. As long you keep visiting I’m willing to keep dishing it up. The way I see it, we’re kind of in this together.