Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Back and Moving Forward

HowChow and I met for coffee this morning at the Starbucks in The Mall. Though we have communicated by email over the two years since he started blogging about the local food scene, this was the first time we’d actually met face to face.

For me, this is one of the advantages of blogging locally. I can actually meet fellow bloggers and commenter’s if I want to. Since starting this blog a little over three years ago I have made an effort to occasionally connect with the those who visit and comment here as well as with those who blog. I credit JessieX for getting me started on this with the first local blogtail hour at Clyde’s back in the winter of 2006. Since then I’ve had the pleasure to meet the people behind The Hedgehog Report, Howard County Maryland, Hayduke, Free Market, The Stobist, Dinosaur Mom Chronicles, Finding Blanche, Do I Amuse You, Columbia Compass, Columbia Blog Project ,Columbia 2.0., Annethologie, and of course HoCoMoJo.

This year I’ve met a couple of commenter’s too. I’ve had lunch with Bob O and drinks with Lotsabogeys. These personal connections have made my own blogging experience that much richer.

This morning, HowChow and I talked a bit about the work involved in maintaining an active blog. It isn’t easy to post on regular basis. It takes dedication that borders on obsession. That is probably why so many blogs fade away after promising starts. For HowChow, blogging was a way for him to get acquainted with his community. He moved to Howard County from Northern Virginia and didn’t know where to find anything. He found that the traditional sources of information, The Washington Post, The Sun and, by extension, Explore Howard, gave only very cursory coverage of the local food scene. To get acclimated with his new home and its gastronomical offerings he started blogging and two short years later this relative newcomer has become the leading online source for information on where to eat and where to buy groceries in Howard County. Now it has become a labor of love for him.

For me it is also a labor of love. I love Howard County and I enjoy the dialogue that this blog sometimes generates about local issues. Of course I have my own opinion on things but I don’t stifle dissenting opinions either. That is what makes blogging interesting.

I hope 2010 will be an interesting year for Tales of Two Cities readers. With statewide elections in November there will be ample subject matter to write about and hopefully some of my posts will continue to generate lively debate and discussion.

Thanks again to all who visit and comment. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sarah & Desmond’s Closed

I received a tip from HowChow that Sarah & Desmonds Bakery & Café in Ellicott City had closed so this morning I dropped by to check it out. I found the restaurant locked up with a District Court notice taped to the door. From appearances I’d have to say that they’re toast.

It’s a shame. This is a great little spot for a café and I had high hopes for them. On three separate occasions this fall Mama Wordbones and I tried to have breakfast there but left without purchasing anything because the service was so bad. We hadn't been back. I wonder if others had similar experiences and if that may have contributed to their downfall.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Enough Affordable Housing in Columbia

Don’t get me wrong, I can certainly appreciate the need for affordable housing in Howard County but it does seem that Columbia already bears a disproportionate burden of the counties low cost housing stock. According to David Yungmann and New City Alliance, “Columbia currently contains more than half the affordable housing in Howard County.”

Apparently that isn’t enough for some housing advocates. They want a redeveloped Columbia Town Center to accommodate even more low cost housing than the developer has already generously proposed. According to this article by Larry Carson in The Sun, “Advocates of affordable housing want 10 percent of the new residential units to be set aside for those with incomes under $40,000, with another 10 percent for those with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000.”

General Growth Properties is proposing “no more than 15 percent of the units be reduced-price housing, or about 825 of the 5,500 units. Hamm said his company would create a fund of up to $30 million to pay for that by charging builders a $4,000 premium per housing unit and by charging commercial tenants 5 cents per square foot.”

The company would initially establish the fund with a $5 million donation. That seems pretty generous to me.

HoCo Home Assessments Drop 23.1%

According to this front page story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, the assessed value of homes in Howard County dropped by 23.1% since 2006. Across the State of Maryland, assessed values dropped an average of 19.7% “the largest decline in the state assessment office's history.”

This doesn’t mean our property taxes are likely to go down though.

“In Howard County, for example, if a home doubled in value, the owner pays taxes on only 5 percent of that increase yearly. So even this year's 23.1 percent decline in residential value won't produce a tax bill cut.”

Curiously, Carson also reported that during the same period commercial properties actually increased in value according to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation. That doesn’t jibe at all with what the financial community thinks.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Problem with Petitions

Back when Marc Norman and his Citizens for Open Government were trying to overturn CB58-2008 (aka ZRA 100) through referendum, I wrote a post about the problem with the petition gathering process. As noble and democratically righteous as the concept of the right to petition the government for redress may sound on paper, it falls apart where the rubber meets the road.

Huh?

The bottom line is that a large number of registered voters are ill informed and therefore lack a good understanding of the implications of signing a petition. This is aptly demonstrated by the video featured in this post on Free Market’s blog yesterday.

After watching this video I am more convinced than ever that the bar for petition gathering for referendums needs to be set very high.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Federal Lawsuit Update 7

On December 21st, Susan Baker Gray and her merry band of plaintiffs filed an appeal of the ruling by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz dismissing their suit which claimed that the new Wegmans store in Columbia would disturb Phillip Rousseau’s quiet enjoyment of his home (among other things).

In dismissing this suit back on November 19th, Judge Motz ruled that this was essentially the same suit that he dismissed back in July.

I’ll say one thing for these plaintiffs, they are tenacious, crazy sure, but tenacious in their craziness.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The 2009 Dookie Awards

As we wind up another year in the local blogosphere it is time once again to toss tomatoes and accolades at the best and the worst of the local blog scene in 2009. This tradition began back in December of 2006 by HoCo Hayduke and was picked up by Tales of Two Cities last year when Hayduke retired from blogging. In honor of the founder, they shall henceforth be known as the Dookies.

There are no rules here. Anyone can nominate and all are encouraged to do so.

To get things started the following are the Tales of Two Cities nominees for the 2009 Dookies:

The China Syndrome Award goes to Jack Cole and the Columbia Blog Project. “The Gonzo Journalist last posted in July saying he was off to Shanghai for 16 days and that he’d post again upon his return. “I’ll be back,” he wrote.

He hasn’t been heard of since.

The Smoothie Queen Award goes to JessieX. Who knew that you could make a smoothie out of sweet potatoes and apple puree or beets and beef?

The hands on favorite for the What’s for Dinner Award is HowChow. From 186 posts in 2008 to almost 400 so far this year, Brent has chronicled the local eating scene from Afghan to West African cuisine.

The Urban Art award goes out to Free Market for his posts about the Centennial Park Skate Spot. FM was all over this story a good two months before it was picked up by Explore Howard.

There are two nominees for the Blog of Few Words Award. http://hoco-at-nyte.blogspot.com/, a newcomer to the local blogosphere, rarely posts more than a sentence or two, and sometimes not even that. County Councilperson Jen Terrasa, started a blog back in June. She’s posted ten times since. Are things that slow in District 3?

The “What’s He Smoking Award” goes to Columbia Maryland’s Future. I’m not sure whether Spence wants to be taken seriously or if this is some attempt at real estate satire. For his sake I’m hoping it’s the latter.

And no blog awards would be complete without an award for the blog commenter’s. Tales of Two Cities is fortunate to have a healthy band of regular commenter’s such as Bob O, HH, Young at Heart, PZGURU and of course Anonymous. Still, we pale in comparison to the number of commenter’s on the Hedgehog Report.

And finally, I fully expect that this blog will once again receive a nomination for the Pompous A$$ Award. While I am honored I also think y’all can do better than that.

And with that, I now turn the program for the 2009 Dookie Awards over to you….

Let er rip!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Good for Some, Bad for Others

The schools weren’t the only things shut down by the Blizzard of 09. The jobsite at Emerson One in Emerson Corporate Commons was too.

We were supposed to have a meeting at the site on Monday afternoon. The prospect canceled on Monday morning. “One of our guys is in a wheelchair,” I was told.

It really didn’t matter. The jobsite was closed anyway.

At this point in time, Emerson One consists of four cinder block stair towers rising out of the foundation. The surrounding site is a stew of mud and trenches. The snow covers all of that now. A wrong step could be extremely regretful.

Since not much else was going on at the office, I decided to drive out to North Laurel anyway. Standing looking at the deserted site it occurred to me that this storm was not good for the workers on this job. Instead of getting in a days labor at one of the rare commercial construction jobs right now, they stayed home.

The jobsite wasn’t completely shut down. Two workers were trudging through the snow and muck trying to clear some of the snow from the site.


A pickup truck from the county Bureau of Engineering rolled up the road so I spent a few moments talking with John Alcorn. He told me that some of his guys had just come off eighteen hour shifts moving the snow. He looked pretty tired himself.

“You get much sleep in the past few days?”

“I got about four hours last night,” he told me.

He said that some guys on his crew logged in over 50 hours of overtime during the storm. He then pointed out that this helped take the sting off the mandated four day county furlough the week after Christmas.

That summed it up nicely. B09…good for some, bad for others.

Christmas Shopping 09

Shoppers outnumbered salesclerks at the digital camera section of Best Buy by a ratio of at least 10 to 1 this past Monday. An impromptu clerk waiting line had formed which I joined just as the harried sales guy reappeared. He had been trying to find something on the computer for the first customers in the line.

“It looks like we are out of stock,” he told them.

The second customer in line had apparently been listening to the first customer’s camera inquiries. He pointed to a Canon display and asked if they had considered that one. “I’ve done some research on the Internet and this one seems to get pretty good reviews.”

Before the first customer could respond, the sales guy chimed in “That’s a very good camera,” and then proceeded to point out that it was actually a better a choice than the camera the first customer had inquired about. “It’s on sale too,” he added.

A brief discussion of that particular cameras features and benefits then ensued with questions and answers following back and forth between the sales guy, the first customer in line, the second customer in line, a fourth customer and me.

The first customer decided to go with it. They were available in dark gray, light gray or light blue. “I’ll take a dark gray one,” he said.

“While you’re down there grab me a light gray one” the second customer suggested.

“I’ll take a light blue one,” I said.

The fourth customer went for a light blue one too.

Before you know it, the sales guy had taken care of four customers in one swoop. Of course we the customers had a lot to do with that. We collaborated on this one holiday shopping task and saved a good deal of time and energy. I never got anyone’s name but for that brief period of time we worked pretty well together as a team. The whole experience was pretty interesting, for me at least.

“I hate this time of year,” the sales guy said as he rang up my purchase.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Moron Legislative Perks

Okay, I’ll admit it. When I started to type “More on” in the heading for this post my writing muse tapped on my shoulder. Moronic is not a bad way to look at the shenanigans with the pay and perks of the Maryland General Assembly.

My buddy Len Lazerick is all over this.

On December 9th he wrote this analysis of the pending compensation commission review which will soon determine “whether legislators will get a pay hike after the next election. The panel will also review pensions and expenses such as lodging and meals,"

The last time they did this, back in 2002, legislative salaries increased by 38% over the next three years “while state employees were getting less than a third of that and personal income in Maryland as a whole was going up 20 percent.”

The things is, the General Assembly is already the second highest paid time state legislature out of 40 part time state legislatures in the country.

Number two in the country. I guess sometimes it can be preferable to at least be number two on a list.

Our elected representatives get a pretty liberal expense account too.

In a December 14th follow up on the same topic, Len took a closer look at their expense reimbursements.

A majority of the legislature lives less than an hour’s drive from Annapolis, as does a majority of its constituents. Yet the state spends $1.8 million to put them up in Annapolis. The state contracts with seven hotels to put up 60 percent of the 188 legislators for the whole 90 days at $126 a night. That’s $11,340 apiece.”

"Eighty six percent of the legislators also claim the full per diem meal reimbursement for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are not required to provide receipts."

Len points out that the savings, though not huge, would still send the right signal.

“Talking about meals and hotels when the state faces a $2 billion deficit next year seems kind of petty. But those are the sort of perks that can annoy constituents. No question that most legislators work long hours in the final weeks of the session, so why not rent those hotel rooms for 60 days instead of 90? That would save $600,000.”

“How about receipts for some of those meals? Cumbersome to be sure, especially when you’re splitting the tab, and lots of paperwork for some poor clerk, probably making less $43,500 per year.”

Then again, we could always go with my idea.

More Columbia Blizzard Pix

Yesterday I received two more emails with Columbia blizzard photos. Lisa from Thunder Hill sent this great action photo of her daughter Savanna. She writes “And yes, my daughter Savanna is airborne after hitting a snow ramp.”

Once again the biggest beneficiaries of the snowstorm are the kids. Last night I received a text message from the school system letting me know that the schools would be closed again today. I really like the new text message notification system. Nice job HCPSS.

Chuck supplied this picture of the mound of snow accumulated on his patio table. Chuck writes “That table is holding it's own, but just barely. Seems like Columbia always seems to be right in the path of these storms and wins the snowfall amounts.”

He’s right about that. According to the official snowfall tallies I saw, Columbia got a couple more inches than Ellicott City.

Happy Birthday Liz

Last night, as I tried to make my way to the annual winter’s solstice bonfire in my old Columbia Town Center neighborhood, I got held up by Santa.

The Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department collects toys for kids by ferrying Santa around Ellicott City neighborhoods in a tricked out sleigh. Santa is accompanied by a team of fire and rescue personnel who also show off a couple pieces of their fire equipment. The big man was supposed to visit our neighborhood Saturday but B09 caused them to reschedule for last night.

Santa’s neighborhood arrival is a big time community and family event. The adults seem to enjoy his visit as much as the kids. Consequently his visit caused me to get a little hung up in my new neighborhood while trying to get to my old neighborhood.

By the time I arrived at the solstice celebration Liz Bobo and Lloyd Knowles had already come and gone. My old neighbors told me that she was also celebrating her birthday last night. I guess Lloyd figured he had to take her someplace else besides a pagan inspired bonfire to celebrate.

Anyway, sorry I missed you Liz. A belated Happy Birthday.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Bob and Santa

Just a little holiday entertainment for the late night visitors of Tales of Two Cities…

Columbia Blizzard Pix

Sarah must have read my post this morning in which I lamented the fact that I didn’t get any blizzard pictures from Columbia readers of Tales of Two Cities.

She sent along a few shots from her new home in the Village of Owen Brown and had some nice things to say about the Columbia Association.

“Surprisingly, and wonderfully, the Columbia Association had plowed the trailways mid-storm, so we walked to Giant around 3:30 pm on Saturday. Our street hadn't even been plowed at this point in time (oh, okay, they did plow it Friday night sometime, but you couldn't tell), but the trails were-- glad to pay my CPRA fees!”

Like all of us, Sarah spent part of her Sunday digging out. Since she is new to this neighborhood the Blizzard of Aught Nine had a hidden benefit.

“We dug out Sunday morning along with most of our neighbors, which was a great introduction to many of them.”

Happy Winters Solstice

Winter officially begins at 12:47 PM today. Winters Solstice is a day of celebration dating back to ancient times since it also marks the beginning of longer days of sunlight.

That alone is cause for celebration in my book. In Baltimore it is also Frank Zappa Day.

In my old neighborhood in Columbia Town Center there will be a bonfire and neighborhood celebration tonight to mark the change of season. Though I am no longer a member of the tribe, I am still invited back for this takeoff on an old pagan ritual. There will be friends’ food and drink but thankfully no naked dancing. I haven’t missed one yet.

Scene This Week In...

Well it was one for the record books. According to The Sun, the Blizzard of Aught Nine officially clocked in as the seventh largest snow storm on record at 20.5 inches. This is the kind of storm that will be talked about for years to come. If past snowstorms are any indication, nine months from now Howard County General Hospital will experience an unusually high amount of baby deliveries.

Blogging through the storm on Saturday I put out a call for readers to send me pictures of the storm. I received pictures from Eklridge and Ellicott City but surprisingly none from Columbia.

Yesterday I drove over to Wilde Lake Park to get my own. Wilde Lake Park is one of my favorite parts of Columbia. When I lived in the Vantage Point neighborhood I regularly ran around the lake in all seasons. I knew it would be beautiful in the fresh fallen snow.

I really liked the picnic benches.

In Ellicott City we weathered the storm reasonably well. The larder was well stocked and fortunately we never lost power. We were a bit concerned about the power situation since we usually don’t fare all that well when an ill wind blows in my neighborhood.

A fresh snow reveals new sights in some of Mama Wordbones gardens. The red berries of the Nandina bushes against the snow were a nice visual treat.

I also thought the shadow play from the pergola was cool too.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Digging Out

All across Howard County folks are digging out of the Blizzard of 09 with the sun giving a little assist.
Around 10 this morning I dug out the Wordbones mobile and ventured down to Ellicott City. I had already reconciled myself to the fact that my usual fix of reading the Sunday was not going to be satisfied, I still hoped that maybe I’d be able to snag a decent cup of coffee.
I was rewarded for my efforts by finding the Little French Market open for business. I snagged four fresh muffins for the troops back home and got myself a large Americano. Life is indeed good.
Ellicott City was beautiful with the fresh snow covering the old town. Up and down the street merchants were busy clearing the snow from the walks to make way for holiday shoppers.

As I drove back up New Cut Road I ran into Joe Blanchfield, the owner of Columbia Oak Tree furniture. He was getting ready to head into Columbia to get his store open after digging himself out.
I hope everyone is careful out there as they extricate themselves from B09.

Storms End


Last night Mama Wordbones and I were finally able to take the two old dogs for a much needed walk. Old dogs have a rough time in deep snow.

It was around 10 PM and the Blizzard of 09 was slowly losing its muscle.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Down on Main Street

Brian sent us these photos from downtown Ellicott City. He tells us that he and his girlfriend took a walk to Highs for supplies “In the store were people who walked, people driving snow plows and one store clerk who didn't seem thrilled about being there.”

Thanks for sharing.
In honor of the big storm (the Weather Channel just dubbed it an "epic" storm) I’ve added a new category called Blizzard of 09. It’ll make these pictures easier to find later.

Keep em coming.

EC Road Report

Once we dug out the cars this afternoon I thought I’d take the SUV out for a little reconnoiter of the road situation.

In a word, it’s bad.
I made it out to College Avenue around 2:30. This is what it looked like. In fact this is what all the roads looked like.
This is New Cut Road near the intersection of New Cut and Hillsborough.

The bottom line, unless you have four wheel drive you’d be nuts to drive these roads. Even with four wheel drive you have to weigh the risk that you could still hit ice and slide off the road. It’s not real easy to tell where the shoulders are.

Over in Elkridge

Tim sent this picture to Tales of Two Cities from his front door in Eklridge. Tim writes “The left-most cars are mine, and this was taken about 20 minutes after I finished clearing them off.”

Keep em coming.

I just ventured out a little in my four wheel drive to reconnoiter the roads. I’ll post some of those pics later.

Vic Broccolino is a Great Guy

I gotta say, I’m having a pretty good time doing the podcast “And Then There’s That” with Paul Skalny. With four shows now under our belts, it’s beginning to feel pretty comfortable. Much of the credit goes to Dave Bittner who produces the show. He does a pretty good job of making us look good on radio.

What really works though is having a good guest. We’ve sat down with Len Lazarick, Dennis Schrader, Mary Kay Sigaty and this week, Vic Broccolino. All have been both informative and fun. I’m very grateful for that.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to talk with Vic you’d find that he is the real deal. Though he arguably holds one of the most important jobs in our community, he is one of the more easy going executives I’ve met. I also learned a lot in our discussion yesterday because he’s the kind guy who willingly shares what he knows.

On January 15th he’ll celebrate his 20th year at the helm of Howard County General Hospital.

And finally, doing the show in the Lakeside Café is turning out to be one of our better decisions. Instead of sitting around a table in a small studio we’re out there, in the crowd so to speak. It sets a good tone for the show and I’m thankful for that as well.

You can hear the latest edition of our podcast, here.

Snowed In

Its official, this storm is now a blizzard.

If you have a blizzard picture you’d like to share with Tales of Two Cities readers, email it to me at wordbones@verizon.net with a brief description and I’ll post them on the blog throughout the day. This was taken in my neighborhood in Ellicott City less than an hour ago.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Biggest Employer in HoCo

An anonymous commenter on this post suggested that the Howard County Public System was the largest employer in the county. While the school system is certainly ONE of the largest employers, they are not THE largest. Howard County’s largest employer is by far Johns Hopkins. The hospital, which is part of the Johns Hopkins Health System, employs 1,720 people and the Applied Physics Lab in Fulton employs 4,300 people for a total of 6,020 employees. This does not even take into account people working for the School of Continuing Studies in Columbia Gateway or the Dorsey Center in Hanover.

The Howard County Public School System has approximately 4,500 employees.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Take A Look Around



Reading through a November issue of the Howard Arundel Report I was struck by the number of development projects moving forward all around us.

At the intersection of Route 100 and the Baltimore Washington Parkway, Seneca Properties and New Boston are seeking to rezone 230,000 square feet of office land to residential to accommodate more townhomes. The development, Dorchester View, already has 85 townhome units in development on “the other half of the property.” This is just of further expansion of Arundel Preserve which has sprung up next the Arundel Mills Mall. Arundel Preserve is 268 acres with 250,000 square of retail space, three hotels, 738 apartments, 390 townhomes, and 47 single family homes. Arundel Mills is not just a mall anymore, it’s a submarket.

Further south down the Parkway, at Route 198 Greenberg Gibbons and Ribera Development have assembled 270 acres just outside Fort Meade for a project they’re calling Arundel Gateway. They are expected to receive approval from the Anne Arundel County Council to rezone the property to mixed use. This will pave the way for up to 1,800 residential units and 350,000 square feet of office and retail space.

Over by the airport, at the intersection of Route 100 and Telegraph Road, Ryan Homes has begun sales of the first phase of what eventually will be 106 townhomes in the Buckingham development. Merritt Properties, the project developer, will also build a retail center, a Merritt Athletic Club and 180,000 square feet of office space.

All of these projects will be competing with Columbia and Howard County, particularly for office tenants. In my opinion this answers the question that the opponents of GGP’s Town Center development plan keep asking.

“What’s the rush?”

The answer is someone else is eating our lunch.

Big Numbers

When I think of the Howard County School System I generally think of the individual schools or the school board. I also understand that it is also one of the largest employers in the county and that it consumes the lion’s share of the county budget. This week, in an email from the school system, I got a better understanding of the breadth of the school system property operations and real estate.

The school system owns 79 facilities totaling 7,731,963 square feet and 1,576 acres of land spread all over the county. To put that into perspective, that is more than all of the office space in Columbia Gateway Corporate Park (5.4 million square feet) and more than twice the size of Maple Lawn (600 acres).

The operating cost for this real estate portfolio is approximately $40 million per year which includes just over $6 million for landscaping and grounds maintenance. This makes the school system the largest property management operation in the county.

That’s a pretty big footprint.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Judge Approves GGP Restructuring

According to this story by Tiffany Kay in Bloomberg, General Growth Properties received approval from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper to restructure $10.5 billion of its debt.

“The Chapter 11 plan approved yesterday by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper extends the company’s various loans, making none due before 2014, according to a company statement distributed by Business Wire. The plan covers 103 properties and 87 loan agreements. It leaves six more sets of properties, each with a number of leases, under court protection, Anup Sathy, a lawyer for the company, told the judge.”

This is a significant milestone both for GGP and the commercial real estate industry as a whole.

“Confirmation of General Growth’s plan is significant because it resolves concerns about potential bankruptcy problems at other real estate companies that have also tried to shield assets using special-purpose entities, Gropper said in court earlier yesterday.”

Those who have been quick to disparage GGP as a bankrupt company should take note that this plan calls for the company’s debt to be repaid in full. This restructuring speaks volumes about the company’s integrity and ability to perform.

Blue Ribbon for Ellicott Mills

Ellicott Mills Middle School in Ellicott City was named as one of six Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools yesterday. The Blue Ribbon Schools Program is administered by the US Department of Education to honor public and private elementary, middle and high schools “that are either academically superior or that demonstrate dramatic gains in student achievement to high levels.”

According to this story by Liz Bowie and Arin Gencer in The Sun, Ellicott Mills will now “be nominated to become national Blue Ribbon schools. In the past, most schools that have earned the state designation have been given the federal one as well.”

There was also a nice video featuring scenes from Ellicott Mills on WBAL last night.

From my own personal experience I can say that Ellicott Mills is certainly deserving of this recognition. Peanut is a sixth grader at the school.

Ellicott Mills was the only Howard County School to receive the Blue Ribbon this year. Congratulations to the administration and staff.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Democratic Challenger in District 9A

It looks like Warren Miller and Gail Bates will have a Democratic challenger for one of the House of Delegates seats in Legislative District 9A. Jon Weinstein, a resident of Ellicott City and founder of Line of Sight, a management consulting firm, has officially tossed his hat in the ring.

Actually he tossed his hat in the ring some time ago but I just found out about it. Oh well, better late than never as they say.

Judging from Warren Millers recent attempt to stifle consumer choice in Howard County, I’m glad we’ll at least have a choice next November.

They’re Baaack!

The scam charity panhandlers have returned to the intersection of Dobbin Road and Route 175 in Columbia.

Be advised that these folks are not exactly what they appear.

Monday, December 14, 2009

No White Christmas This Year

Since we’ve already had our first significant snowfall of the season I wondered if we might actually have a white Christmas this year.

Not likely.

According to this map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration it looks like something between 11% to 25% chance of that happening.

Bigger Than the Pentagon

According to this story by Joshua Stewart in the Hometown Annapolis, the BRAC related growth at Fort Meade “will turn the sprawling west county Army installation into one of the largest workplaces in the nation, making it well more than double the size of the Pentagon.”

It has been a little over two years since the decision was made to expand the mission at Fort Meade. Some have wondered whether all the talk of new jobs was over hyped. That is because, for the most part, the full impact has not yet been felt. With construction of the new 400,000 square foot headquarters for the Defense Information Systems Agency nearing completion, 2010 will be the year that the benefits to local economy become evident.

“From when the first trickle of jobs start to arrive in 2010 to a big rush later in the year, and back down to a slow trickle by 2015, an estimated 22,000 new jobs will have either been created or moved to Fort Meade, making it the state's largest employer by tens of thousands of people.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

HoCo Political Battlegrounds Taking Shape

Howard County Republicans are optimistic about their prospects for 2010. With less than eleven months to go, several candidates for local offices are already into their campaigns while others are ready to make to transition from “exploratory committees” to full blown campaigns.

I’ve already mentioned John Bailey and his challenge for Liz Bobo’s delegate seat in District 12B and Ed Priola’s efforts to snatch one of the delegate seats in District 13. In the council races, Anthony Jordan is the only officially declared GOP candidate so far. Anthony is seeking to unseat Calvin Ball in District 2.

Jim Robey will have a contested race for his Senate seat. Kyle Lorton, an executive with WR Grace in Columbia, announced his candidacy this summer and recently held a fundraiser in Savage that was attended by former governor Bob Erlich. According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun, Kyle said “I'm real concerned about the direction of both the state and nation in a shift to the left." He said he'll stress his own qualifications but also plans to spotlight Robey's role in raising income and sales taxes.”

Among those getting ready to transition from exploratory mode are Bob Flanagan’s quest for Courtney Watson’s council seat in District 1 and Dennis Schrader is widely expected to announce his attempt to take back his old council seat from Jen Terrasa in District 3.

I’ve yet to hear of any potential GOP challengers for Mary Kay Sigaty. Back in July I speculated that CoFoCoDo spokesperson Alan Klein may mount a Democratic primary challenge for her seat. I suspect he is now having second thoughts about that.

The other candidate moving from the sidelines to the field of battle is Trent Kittelman. Trent has already begun building a war chest and is expect to formally announce in February.

With the cost of these individual contests ranging from twenty grand for a council seat to a million bucks for county executive, it looks like we’re in for a long eleven months of fundraising events.

Virginia Bans Cul-De-Sacs

ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN NASSEF
This week, The New York Times Magazine is entirely devoted to best ideas of the year. In the Social Sciences category, the magazine editors chose the newly enacted regulations in the Commonwealth of Virginia “to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future developments.”

When Roger Lewis gave a seminar in Columbia back in January he also took aim at the cul-de-sac as a bad planning idea. He likened them to bunches of grapes when viewed from aloft.

One of the benefits of eliminating cul-de-sacs is improving the flow of traffic.

“Virginia expects the new rules to relieve its strained infrastructure budget: through streets are more efficient and cheaper to maintain, and they take pressure off arterial roads that otherwise need to be widened.”

This is one of the centerpieces of General Growths Town Center redevelopment plans. They would alter the current road system in Town Center to create more of a grid pattern.

It is too late to change the cul-de-sac culture in the other nine villages of Columbia but at least in Town Center we can get it right.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What He Said

Doug Miller wrote an excellent editorial in the Columbia Flier about the conflicting opinions and passions on the redevelopment of Columbia’s Town Center.

"...the energy that hundreds are devoting now to getting it right will pay dividends in that final product, no matter what form it ultimately takes.”

Nicely put.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Small State, Fat Legislators

Yesterday, in Maryland Reporter, Len Lazerick reported that the members of Maryland’s General Assembly “are the nation's second-highest paid part-time lawmakers.”

They may be in for a raise too.

“A 9-member compensation commission began work this week on whether legislators will get a pay hike after the next election. The panel will also review pensions and expenses such as lodging and meals, with recommendations due Jan. 27.”

Members of the assembly also enjoy a pretty liberal policy when it comes to their expenses too. Unlike private industry, they are not required to produce receipts for their expenses.

“Simon Powell, an analyst with the Department of Legislative Services who is staffing the commission, said he believed it decided receipts would be “cumbersome” and create “a lot of paperwork.”

Wow!

I’ve never worked anywhere that I wasn’t required to submit a receipt for reimbursement of my expenses. This seems to be a system designed for abuse.

This year taxpayers reimbursed their elected representatives for $1.8 million in lodging and $439,000 for meals for 90 days of work. If they are really serious about trying to find ways to stretch the state budget during these lean years, they would be well served by taking a hard look at their own spending habits.

Of course they could also consider my other idea too.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

March Decision for Cyber Command

My colleague Bill Harrison attended the BWI Partnership meeting on Tuesday where Senator Barbara Mikulski and Senator Ben Cardin were the featured speakers. During her presentation, Senator Mikulski mentioned that a final decision as to location of the new US Cyber Command won’t be made until March.

I mistakenly thought that this was already a done deal. Back in June, the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, recommended that the new command be headquartered at Fort Meade under Lt. General Keith Alexander, the Director of the National Security Agency. Gates had expressed a desire for this command to be fully operational by October 2010.

This would be a pretty significant addition to Fort Meade. Some analysts predict it could bring as many 15,000 new jobs on top of the approximately 20,000 jobs already coming to Fort Meade as part of BRAC.

Writing the Wrongs

A friend of mine sent me this cartoon. It made me think of some of the commenters on Tales of Two Cities.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Watson Gets the Chair

At Monday evening’s county council meeting, Courtney Watson was elected as the next chair of the council replacing Mary Kay Sigaty who will now move to the position of vice chair. Mary Kay had expressed an interest in holding on to the chairmanship for another year to maintain some continuity on the Columbia Town Center redevelopment legislative process but politics probably trumped that plan. Since next year is an election, the position of council chair gives Courtney a little added visibility in her quest to seek a second term. Bob Flanagan has already begun a campaign to challenge her whereas no viable opponent has yet surfaced for Mary Kay.

As Larry Carson reported in this story in The Sun, the chairmanship can be a mixed blessing. Courtney, who was the council chair two years ago, reportedly said “The best day is the day you're elected, and the second best day is the day you turn the reins over. Everything else is just a blur."

Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball played musical chairs. Jen will assume the new zoning board chair replacing Calvin who will become the new liquor board chair, replacing Jen.

Greg Fox, the lone Republican on the five person council, gets no chair. Understandably he abstained from voting on these new assignments.

Bridge Views



HoCoMoJo prepared this video for the Bridge Columbia effort. I particularly like John Slaters description of the “cage.”

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

White Knight for GGP

Brookfield Asset Management has reportedly purchased “close to $1 billion of General Growth's unsecured debt in recent months.” According to this story by Pav Jordan in Reuters, the Canadian based firm would like to see GGP remain a single entity as opposed to selling off some of its key assets.

Brookfield would make a good partner for GGP. Unlike Simon Property Group, which has also been positioning itself for a play for GGP, Brookfield does not have a large stake in retail. The company has over $90 billion in assets under management and has “one of the largest portfolios of both premier office properties and hydroelectric power generation facilities as well as transmission and timberland operations, located in North and South America and Europe.”

A Brookfield GGP partnership would seem to be pretty synergistic.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Day Late, A Dollar Short

Or perhaps I should say 35 years late and $45,000 short.

According to this story by Larry Carson in The Sun today, Circuit Court Judge Alfred L. Brennen rejected a claim by The Columbia Association against Joseph and Shirley Poteet for $45,000 in unpaid CPRA liens dating back to 1973. CA did not file a claim against the Poteets until 2008.

The judge threw out “the homeowners' association claim as too old to be enforced.”

According to article CA plans to appeal.

High Drama at Arundel Mills

The fate of a slot parlor development at the Arundel Mills mall will be decided today in two separate actions. This afternoon, the Maryland Slots Commission is expected to approve the location of a 4,750 slot machine parlor at the shopping complex in Hanover, Maryland. That may be putting the cart before the horse. The most significant decision will occur tonight when the Anne Arundel County Council will vote whether to approve a zoning change that would allow the parlor to locate there. A rejection of this zoning change would derail the project.

And I thought the Columbia Town Center zoning battle was contentious.

According to this story by Nicole Fuller and Laura Smitherman in The Sun, the vote could easily go either way.

“But even after nine months of wrestling with the issue, it is unclear how the local battle will end. Three of the seven council members say they aren't sure how they'll vote, and four "yes" votes are needed to move the billion-dollar project forward.

"What will happen Monday night is anybody's guess," said Council President Cathleen M. Vitale, who declined to say how she plans to vote.”

To further add to the drama surrounding this hot button issue, the council must render their decision before midnight tonight.

I’m just glad there won’t be a slots parlor in Howard County. Last year, before the referendum on slots, I came out against slots in this post and this column. One year later, it sure seems like the state legistlators claim that slots would save Maryland’s horse racing industry and bring in much needed revenue for the state was a sham. Jay Hanock summed the situation up nicely in this column he wrote in The Sun back in February.

“Legalizing slot machines was supposed to save Maryland horse tracks, help Maryland schools and keep the Preakness in Baltimore. That it might fail on all counts, in a kind of grotesque trifecta, is probably what everybody involved with it deserves.”

Sunday, December 06, 2009

I’ll Drink To That

In this editorial in The Sun today, the paper called for increasing the state tax on alcoholic beverages by a dime. According to The Suns editors, Maryland has one of the lowest alcoholic beverage taxes in the country. In addition to helping the looming state budget crisis, the editors cite public health and safety benefits as well.

“As a recent report prepared by two professors from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health makes clear, raising that tax to the equivalent of about 10 cents per drink would pay huge dividends. By their estimate: 14,987 fewer cases of alcohol dependence, 37 fewer deaths (many of them traffic-related), 13 fewer rapes, 316 fewer assaults, 21 fewer robberies, 67 fewer incidents of severe violence against children and 19 fewer cases of fetal alcohol syndrome each year.

That may seem a leap of faith, but Professors David H. Jernigan and Hugh Waters say they have the real-world experience to back it up - dozens of studies showing that whenever states raise the tax on alcohol, drinking (and excessive drinking) declines. They predict the higher tax would reduce consumption in Maryland by slightly under 5 percent; the public health benefits accrue from that.”

There isn’t much chance of this happening though. The licensed beverage lobby is extremely influential in our state and would likely mount a concerted effort to stop it not to mention that raising any new tax in an election year is also considered political suicide.

“If history is any guide, lawmakers are bound to be reluctant to raise taxes next year. But protecting the alcohol industry at the expense of schools and other vital services (not to mention bankrupting local government) may raise the ire of voters more.”

It will be interesting if any our local legislators’ have the courage to get behind this initiative. Judging by their recent bipartisan willingness to limit consumer choice in Howard County I say that is highly unlikely.

Midnight Madness in Ellicott City Part Two

Friday night during the Midnight Madness festivities in Ellicott City, we had dinner at the new Portalli’s restaurant on Main Street. Since HowChow came on the local blog scene I have happily deferred restaurant reviews to Brent. He does a much better job of it. That still doesn’t preclude me from occasionally commenting on our dining exploits around the county though.

As far as Portalli’s goes I’ll just say that we were disappointed. The service was good but the food did not live up to our expectations. I did like the cocktail lounge on the second floor though. Bottom line is that we’ll give it a few months and then perhaps try them again.

After dinner we scooted across the street to check out the new banquet facility, Ellicott City Weddings and Events. They were having an open house complete with faux brides and grooms.

This former art gallery is a pretty nifty place for either a wedding or a party. On the top floor is a reception room with big windows overlooking Main Street below. Out back is nice deck that would make a great setting for cocktails in nice weather.

All in all Midnight Madness was a success this year. The owner of the Rumor Mill restaurant told me the next morning that they were within two hundred dollars of a record evening.

A big wag of the wordbones tail goes out to Kimberly Kepnes who orchestrated the festivities this year on behalf of the Ellicott City Business Association.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

New HoCo Blogger

Well maybe not real new. His profile says he’s been blogging since July 2008. He’s written a total of 10 posts so far this year.

Still, hoco@nyte is a voice from another part of our local scene, the bar scene. The blog author describes himself as a “Career Bartender and party host,hard worker and organizer.”

My kind of guy.

Welcome hoco@nyte. We’ve added your blog to Other Local Stuff. Post often.

This is a Dusting?

I distinctly recall hearing a forecaster say yesterday that the most we could expect from this storm was a “dusting” of snow, nothing significant. The same forecaster further advised that the streets were too warm for any accumulation on the roads.

Then again that was yesterday.

Yesterday, as we podcast our latest edition of And Then There’s That, Paul and I had a little fun talking snow strategies with the patrons of the Lakeside Coffee Shop in Columbia. That turned out to be pretty timely.

Oh yeah, we also had a nice chat with Councilperson Mary Kay Sigaty.

In This Months Business Monthly

It really rankles me when I hear people refer to General Growth Properties as a bankrupt developer as if that somehow makes them evil. Yes, the company sought protection of the bankruptcy courts when they were unable to refinance their debt. What is important to understand is that they are not asking anyone to forgive that debt. They are only working to extend the terms.

Bridget Mugane, speaking on behalf of the Howard County Citizens Association has repeatedly disparaged the company in public hearings and in the press. In this story by Sarah Breitenbach in the Howard County Times she called GGP a “folks who have no loyalty here, they're hard-nosed business people."

I take issue with this because I feel that Columbia and Howard County actually owe a debt of gratitude to GGP. Before they came along Columbia’s Town Center was being developed in a piecemeal fashion, one parcel at a time. There was no cohesion and no master plan. General Growth has breathed new life into Columbia.

They paid a high price for that privilege too. It was largely the debt that they incurred when they bought The Rouse Company that pushed them into bankruptcy. The founders of the company, the Bucksbaum family, lost control of the company and a good deal of their personal fortune.

No loyalty here?

I don’t think so Bridget. They have more at stake in this community than you do.

You can read this month’s column here.

Midnight Madness in Ellicott City Part One

video

It was a great night for Midnight Madness in Ellicott City last night. The town was packed and the holiday atmosphere was greatly enhanced by these wandering Madrigals from Mt. Hebron High School.

Go Vikes!

More on Midnight Madness later…

Friday, December 04, 2009

Look Who Crashed the Party

Last night, Davis Agnor Rapaport & Skalny held their annual holiday party. Greeting the guests as soon as they stepped off the elevators were Washington’s now famous party crashers, Tareq and Michaele Salahi.

Well, not the real thing but probably more fun than the real thing. All night “invited” guests posed to have their pictures taken with the cut out figures, including county executive, Ken Ulman.

In this picture is Len Lazerick, the editor of Maryland Reporter, hamming it up with the faux couple.

Brilliant.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Funny, I don’t Feel That Rich

According to this story in The Huffington Post today, the US Census Bureau, in its latest report on the poverty and income levels of over 3,100 counties in the United States, identified Howard County as the fifth richest county in the country with a median household income of $101,867.00.

What gives?

It was just about two years ago that Forbes magazine named Howard County as the third richest county in the country with a median household income of $94,260.

I suppose it really doesn’t matter all that much. It’s just that most people I know don’t feel very rich these days.

I suppose it’s all relative. The poorest county in the country is Buffalo County in South Dakota where the median household income is $19,182. Then again the cost of housing in Buffalo County is a little more reasonable too. The mean price of a home in Buffalo County in 2007 was $110,588. Given that the county population density is 4 people per square mile you probably get a little land with that house too.

Destroying Nature in Order to Save It?

A couple of people have suggested that I write something about the construction on the new Robinson Nature Center on Cedar Lane in Columbia. For those who may have missed it, the county is spending almost $4 million for the design and construction of a 25,000 square foot nature center on 18.4 acres of land purchased from the Robinson Nature Center Foundation.

The following is a description of the project from the Howard County Recreation & Parks website:

“The center will be comprised of a modern nature center with customary indoor exhibits and displays along with outdoor interpretive trails. The trails will be used for outdoor education, and interpretation of the historic Simpsonville Mill and its surrounds. The indoor exhibits and displays will be both interactive and static in nature. In addition to the main exhibit room, the Center will have a large Discovery Room specifically designed for children’s activities with many “hands-on” exhibits and activities. The Discovery Room will capture the attention of children and educate them about their natural environment. The exhibits and activities will be based on sound environmental science while at the same time, offering an exciting and enjoyable learning experience. The programs and exhibits will address environmental issues on a local, regional and global level. The Center will also provide space for meetings, conferences and special events again bringing people together to learn more about our natural environment.

Still, some locals have been critical at what they see as the heavy handed development program for a “nature center” citing the clearing and grading as being excessive. They point to the claim that the center “will be in harmony with the site” and that the building preserves “the integrity of the site” and wonder how that jibes with the clearing and cutting they are doing.

I don’t know about that. This is a big facility that will serve to educate a large number of school children about our environment. The firm that was hired to design this facility, GWWO Architects, has designed nature centers all around the country including the Everglades National Park. No doubt they have taken precaution to preserve as much of the site as possible. In this case, I believe the end result will justify the means and make this an important addition to the 1,021 acre Middle Patuxent Environmental Area.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Postman Foster Goes to Jail

Last March, Marvin Foster was arrested for stealing over a half million dollars worth of postage stamps from the Elkridge branch of the US Postal service. It was an inside job. Marvin was an employee at the time. Now he’s a former employee.

Yesterday Mr. Foster entered into a plea agreement that will make him a guest of the federal prison system for thirty months. He also now owes the government $300,000 in restitution that he will presumably pay in cash instead of stamps.

2009 Midnight Madness

This Friday night is the 32nd Annual Midnight Madness holiday celebration in Ellicott City. Most stores will stay open until midnight and there will be live holiday entertainment throughout the old town.

Last year, when Mama Wordbones and I ventured down the hill to the Midnight Madness festivities we dined at the Diamondback Tavern which had just opened. This year, some of the folks behind that restaurant have opened a new Italian American restaurant named Portalli’s in the space formerly occupied by Jordan’s Steakhouse. We’ll probably try to get in there on Friday night to check it out.

We’ll also plan on checking out my neighbor’s new venture, Ellicott City Weddings and Events right across Main Street from Portalli’s. I believe they are having an open house Friday night to show off their new facility.

The festivities kick off at 7:00 PM with the tree lighting in front of the old post office on Main Street.

GGP Gets Preliminary Approval of Bankruptcy Plan

According to this story by Erik Larsen, Edvard Pettersson, and Dan Levy in Bloomberg today, General Growth Properties received preliminary approval of its reorganization plan for 70 business units from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper yesterday.

"The mall owner said units for which mortgage holders had agreed to new terms will exit bankruptcy by the end of the year. The deal didn’t include $6 billion in mortgages for other properties, which will stay in bankruptcy. "

This move may trigger bids from rival mall developers, Simon Property Group and The Westfield Group according to James Sullivan, a senior analyst with Green Street Advisors. “This sets the stage to make a pitch for the whole company,” Sullivan said.”

This relatively quick turnabout of the largest commercial real estate bankruptcy in the country bodes well for the both the company and the commercial real estate industry as a whole.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Good Life in the Spotlight

I actually meant to post about this last week but got distracted with all the Thanksgiving stuff going on. The Good Life Market in Ellicott City was the subject of the Second Glance feature in the Post Magazine two weeks ago. Very cool.

The owners of The Good Life Market, Steve Archuleta and Randy Neely, have really transformed this little corner of Parking Lot D in the old town. It’s nice to see them get this kind of exposure.

I got 11 out of the twelve. One of the roosters tripped me up.

A Reason for Optimism

When I last visited this development I commented that, though the posted sale price had been revised upward, no homes had actually started construction. That is no longer the case. At last count there were actually at least six new homes in various stages of construction on this street in Ellicott City.
Apparently more will be starting soon.

This is a good sign that things may be finally turning around for the homebuilders. It will be interesting to see if the posted sales price changes again.