Saturday, July 31, 2010

Birds, Breasts and Bongs

Our guest for the 20th episode of “and then there’s that…” was Michael Oberman. To say that Michael was a bit of a departure from our usual lineup of politicians and community leaders would be an understatement. Michael is what you might call a colorful character.

In a past life, Michael Oberman was a rock and roll columnist for The Washington Star. From the mid sixties to the early seventies he interviewed over 300 rock and rollers including Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix. David Bowie stayed at his mothers’ house in Silver Spring one night when he came to America for his first concert tour. As he shared some of his stories it occurred to me that we probably should have put a mature audience’s disclaimer on this episode.

The biggest surprise of the afternoon was the chance encounter with HoCo Rising. TC and his dad were having lunch at the Red Pearl and we corralled him into coming on at the end of the show to discuss his recent blog post about Senator Ben Cardin’s endorsement of Dennis Schrader…from three years ago!

You can find the latest episode here.

Building Busy

Regular readers know that I usually post something to Tales of Two Cities at least once a day. Yesterday was the exception. It wasn’t for a lack of subject matter but rather a lack of time.

During the economic slowdown over the past two years commercial real estate brokers have been sort of like the Maytag repairman. This pause in real work related activity provided ample opportunity for other creative pursuits such as this blog and our podcast. With the real job beginning to ramp back up, there are going to some days, like yesterday, that something has to give.

The good news is that we are getting busy again. Our office building development in Emerson is coming into the home stretch. Almost a year after breaking ground we are nearing the end of the base building construction phase. The project is scheduled for “shell completion” at the end of September.

Shell completion means that now a tenant can begin “fitting out” the interior of the building to suit their needs and we are actively engaged in negotiations with prospective prospects to do just that. This is what we’ve worked towards for the last three years since we purchased the ten acre site.

That is not to say that I intend to slow down here either. I just need to figure out how to squeeze a few more hours into my day.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Food Bank Makeover

When the HoCo Food Bank first opened about five years ago it basically adapted to the space it leased. When the lease came up for renewal last year, Bita Dayhoff, who was then Vice President of the Howard County Community Action Council, decided that this was an opportunity to either fix the existing space or move to a new space that functioned better for clients and donors. After about four months of scouring for alternative sites while simultaneously holding renewal discussions with the current landlord the decision was made to stay put.

The landlord, AMB Property Corporation, agreed to give the space a complete makeover in exchange for renewing the lease. Yesterday, the HoCo CAC held a grand opening to show off what they’d accomplished. It is really an impressive transformation.

A good contingent of loco politicos showed up to help Bita, now the president of the CAC, to cut the ribbon including Mary Kay Sigaty and Liz Bobo. It was smart for Bita to stand between these two since they are both holding sharp objects.

And what is up with Frank Turner’s and his tourist attire?

This Explains a Lot

According to this report by Laura Vozzella in The Sun, “Columbia has more shrinks per capita than anywhere else in the state.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hobby Lobby and Big Lots

As we continue to work on store locations for Bob’s Discount Furniture we continually learn about other big box retailers coming to Columbia. Today we learned that Hobby Lobby has leased the former Filenes Basement store in Snowden Square in Columbia. The arts and crafts retailer based out of Oklahoma City, has grown from a 300 square foot store in 1972 to 450 stores in 38 states. The former Filenes Basement store is 46,000 square feet.

Over the Columbia Crossing, the long vacant Comp USA store will soon be vacant no longer. Big Lots, “nation's largest broadline closeout retailer” has signed a lease for the 28,000 square foot store next to Joann Fabrics. Big Lots is a big operation with 1,400 stores in 47 states and over $4 billion in annual revenue. Their stores carry a wide variety of stuff.

Coupled with the recent announcements of store opening by Babies R Us and REI the long dry spell in retail, where there were more closings than openings, appears to have finally ended

A Night at Victoria

Last night I dropped into Victoria to grab a bite to eat. I sat at the bar next to a guy who told me he was a cyber security guy. He works in Annapolis Junction. I’m not going to say much more about him out of respect for whatever clearances he might have.

One of the more interesting things he shared with me was that the new 400,000 square foot Defense Information Systems Agency building at Fort Meade is already at capacity. It isn’t even finished and occupied yet plans are well underway for a second building as large if not larger.

It’s been a couple of years since the BRAC expansion at Fort Meade was announced with much fanfare. Its true economic impact is only now beginning to hit, big time.

After I finished eating, David Yungmann invited me to join him for drink. David was sitting with Kristi Simon and Chris Oxenham. This was the first time I’d met Chris in person. The first time I talked to him he had called me to complain about my treatment of Warren Miller in this blog. He did not succeed in changing my opinion of Warren but I give him high marks for trying.

Chris is candidate himself. He is running for the HoCo Republican Central Committee. Chris is a young man with lots of energy and ideas for bringing more young voters into the Republican fold. And though he continually referred to me as a “liberal” as if I was some sort of anti-Christ, I still kind of liked him.

The four of us also talked about the local blog scene and noted, despite Chris’ view of me, the absence of a good lefty blogger in HoCo. I actually had this same conversation with Dave and Ilana Bittner lately. HoCoMoJo would love to have a lefty blog or podcast on their site but no one seems to want to play.

What’s up with the HoCo loco lefty’s?

Donkey got your tongue?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Nice Place to Work Too

Howard Community College is not only a great place to learn it’s now been recognized as one of the best places to work. According to this story by Joe Burris in The Sun, the Chronicle for Higher Education has recognized HCC, along with Anne Arundel Community College and UMBC as “among the best colleges in the nation at which to work”

“The Chronicle lauded HCC "for using a vital signs check-up survey to determine what areas of work-life need to be improved and it engages in a campus-wide dialogue with employees on how those changes might be made."

HCC was recognized in 10 of the survey's categories, including job satisfaction, diversity, teaching environment and work/life balance.”

Congratulations to Kate Hetherington and her staff and faculty.

What about Bob?

I met Bob Wheatley for coffee this morning at the Lakeside café in Town Center. I had been anxious to meet Bob since he decided to challenge Liz Bobo for the House of Delegates seat in 12B.

There is a connection between Bob and Liz’s primary challenger too. When John Bailey first announced his candidacy a year ago he ran as a Republican and had Bob’s backing. When John decided to switch sides back in March, Bob and a few of his other Republican supporters were none too pleased.

Now Bob has decided to take matters into his own hands. He openly acknowledges that he faces pretty daunting odds in the heavily Dem district but is hoping to tap into some of the anti Liz fervor that had gravitated to John because he was the only port in a storm.

The port in a storm metaphor is appropriate in this case. Bob is an avid sailor who has spent a lot of time out on the bay and witnessed first hand the continued degradation of this critical estuary. He believes that the state government isn’t doing enough to protect these waters and professes this to be one of his legislative priorities. I found him to be much more enlightened about the waste problems of the states poultry industry than some other HoCo Repubs. It struck me that this is exactly the sort of issue that our state delegates should be focusing on as opposed to meddling in the affairs of a homeowners association.

Ironically, John Bailey could end up giving Bob’s campaign a big boost by bloodying Liz in the Dem primary. On the other hand it doesn’t help when a reporter completely ignores the Republican candidates when writing a story about the race in 12B.

What about Bob?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Celebrating Second

This Wednesday evening the county will celebrate Money magazines ranking of Ellicott City/Columbia as the second best place to live in America.

"Howard County Executive Ken Ulman invites residents 2 celebrate Columbia/Ellicott City’s #2 ranking on Money Magazine’s “Best Places to Live in America” 2010 list at the Sunset Serenade concert on Wednesday, July 28 in Centennial Park off Route 108, a mid-way point between the winning locations."

In deference to the number one winner, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, they will be giving away ice cream.

Controlled Burn

Yesterday, when I was buying peaches at the Baugher farm stand in Ellicott City, I asked Joan Baugher about the fire back in March that consumed the old farm house that stood behind the stand.

“It was a controlled burn,” she told me. “The fire department used it for training.”

Apparently the renovation of the 1890’s house was impractical. “It had a dirt floor basement that was full of snakes,” she added. They wanted to build a new home on the site so they let the fire department do their thing.

After it was over they gave her a pack of pictures which she shared with me.

This one was her favorite.

The family is now well into the construction of their new home which should be completed this Fall. It will feature a nice wide porch to take in the view and the breeze from what they claim is the highest point in HoCo.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

CSA’s for the Rest of Us

Community supported agriculture is all the rage these days. Local bloggers Sarah Says, HoCo Rising and JessieX have all written posts extolling the virtues of supporting local farmers through memberships in CSA’s. As for me, I’m just not a CSA kind of guy.

That is not to say that I don’t believe in supporting local agriculture. It’s just that my preferred way of doing so is through the local farm stand.

Farm stands are very much in the news today. The Harbin family has been fighting for over a year to keep their farm stand open and it now appears that their fate may soon be decided. According to this article by Larry Carson in The Sun, the Howard County Council is considering a bill “that would allow a popular farm stand to remain at Bethany and Old Frederick roads, even though it is no longer part of an existing farm.”

The Harbins farm is now an active adult community called Hebron Manor.

Though the stand has received strong support from the community some neighbors believe the stand has “become too broadly commercial.”

The front page of The Sun featured a story by Arthur Hirsch about David Smith who operates a farm stand on his farm in Baltimore County. He wants to move his stand out of the basement of his home into a new 6,000 square foot barn on the property. His neighbors are fighting him by arguing that a building that size is “a food-distribution warehouse in farm stand's clothing, and worry that the building would draw traffic that the winding, two-lane Yeoho Road cannot handle, jeopardizing their rural way of life.”

I know a thing or two about warehouses and 6,000 square feet is no warehouse I know of.

My own neighborhood farm stand, Baugher’s, has had its own share of battles over the years. The 100 year old farm successfully fought an eminent domain battle with the HoCo school board in 1999.
When I dropped by today to pick up some fresh peaches the dogs had sought a cool refuge under a pick up.

Bee Squeeze and Pink Shih Tzus

Peanut and I dropped by the International Day Festival last night. We were on our way to The Mall when I remembered reading a blog post about it on Columbia Talk so we made a diversion to the lakefront to check it out.

The first booth we encountered was “Don’t Squeeze the Bees,” an advocacy group for HoCo beekeepers. HoCo bee keepers are hoping to win an exception to the current requirement that honeybee apiaries be a minimum of 200 feet from an adjoining property through the passage of ZRA 117.

I told the guy in the booth that I learned of this issue from a fellow local blogger.

Not surprisingly, we encountered some politicking at the event, including this fellow who stood by the spot-a-pots, presumably working on behalf of Alan Klein. Peanut thought he looked a little scary, kind of like Lurch from the Adams Family.

I also ran into John Bailey. We shared a laugh about the Ken Aldrich story and John told me it was guys like him that turned him off from the Republican Party. John informed me that Ken is also a Minuteman, a group of immigrant bashing vigilantes.

A little later I ran into Liz and her husband Lloyd Knowles. Lloyd paid me a compliment on my brief brush with fame last week and Liz wondered if the influx of all of these intelligence engineers might cause a shift to the right in local politics. She followed up by saying that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Yeah right.

As we walked around the booths Peanut spied a pink Shih Tzu marionette and fell in love and so I shelled out eight bucks and the puppet got a new home. I'm such a dad sometimes.

After we left the lakefront we finally headed over the climate controlled Mall. It was more crowded than the lakefront.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Art Envy

The Baltimore art scene has been receiving some good press from the folks down south in DC lately. A couple of weeks ago, Blake Gopnik wrote this story in The Washington Post about the thriving art scene in B-More which “is busy establishing itself as the ideal artistic incubator.”

“Over the past five years or so, the art scene there has taken off. The flight of industry has left factories just begging to be turned into studios and living spaces, at prices the most junior artist can afford. There's a fine source for that emerging talent: The Maryland Institute College of Art, one of the country's leading schools, has boosted its enrollment by 50 percent in 10 years. And Baltimore has established institutions with a commitment to the cutting edge, both local and international: the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Contemporary Museum, as well as Maryland Art Place.”

And he didn’t even mention Artscape, the largest free arts festival in the country.

This week, Blake was a guest on the Kojo Nnamdi show on WAMU discussing his article. It was interesting to hear these two diehard Washingtonians pine over how great the art scene is in Charm City compared to DC. One of the callers to the show suggested the beer had much to do with the success of the city art scene.

When asked by Kojo about the possibility that DC could ever replicate this scene, Blake suggested that if peace ever breaks out and the Pentagon empties out perhaps it could then backfill with artists.

Fat, Dumb and Happy

That’s how Ken Aldrich describes HoCo voters.

Who is Ken Aldrich?

Ken is the chair of the Taxpayer Protection Initiative, a nationwide Tea Party effort to require a super majority for any proposed tax increases. His group is collecting signatures in hopes of getting this initiative on the ballot in HoCo this fall.

It’s not going very well. According to Larry Carsons Political Notebook in The Sun, with a rapidly approaching deadline of August 9th, Ken is about 12,000 signatures short of what he needs.

He sure has a funny way of trying to win new friends and supporters. As if it wasn’t just bad enough being quoted by Larry as calling HoCo residents “fat, dumb, and happy,” he also called them couch potatoes.

HoCo Rising also posted about Kens stumbling effort this morning.

This was simply a bad idea to begin with.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sign War Gets Nasty in Essex

Over in Essex the political signs battlefield just got a little uglier. According to this story by Robert Lang on a political sign for Kevin Kamenetz, a candidate for Baltimore County Executive, was laced with “19 disposable straight edge razor blades.”

“Baltimore County Police Corporal Mike Hill told WBAL News that police were called to the scene, and an officer removed the razor blades from the sign "for public safety reasons." Hill said the sign itself was not removed. He noted that "there is not much physical evidence," but he did say police are investigating the incident."

Maybe HoCo should deploy a team of Choose Civility missionaries to calm folks down over in East BaltCo.

Then again, maybe not, they’d likely get killed over in that bare knuckled political land.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Norman Wins One

It’s weird. As I was driving back to the office this afternoon I actually thought about Marc Norman. I wondered what was going on with his latest effort to get someone to take him and his group, Citizens for Open Government, seriously. I hadn’t heard from these folks since after Circuit Court Judge Timothy McCrone rejected his effort to overturn the Board of Elections decision to invalidate his anti Harris Teeter petitions back in April.

Predictably he appealed.

When I got back to the office I discovered that my Marc Norman thought was strangely prophetic. Today, according to this story by Jennifer Broadwater in the Columbia Flier, I learned that Matrc actually won a legal victory of sorts. the Maryland Court of Special Appeals has agreed to hear COG’s case “sometime in the fall.”

He must be beside himself.

Wheat Sprout

I spotted my first Bob Wheatley for Delegate sign today on St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City. This is that chunk of legislative gerrymandering that gives the otherwise heavily Democratic District 12B just enough Repubs to weaken the GOP elsewhere.

This is Tea Party country.

Across the street from the Bob sign is a large white sign extolling passersby to “Remember to remember in November”

November! I have a difficult enough time remembering last week.

A little further down the street Bob’s sign was paired with another Bob’s sign who is also running for office against an incumbent.

A couple of weeks ago I was all set to go ahead and endorse John Bailey in his quixotic quest to unseat Liz. The entry of Bob into this race makes that now seem a bit premature.

Supersweet vs. Silver Queen

Summer time in Maryland is corn on the cob time. I grew up loving the sweet taste of freshly picked corn. Growing up I learned from my mother that silver queen was the corn of corn.

No longer.

Yesterday, when I stopped by the Baugher farm stand in Ellicott City to pick up a watermelon, I spotted a hand lettered sign announcing freshly picked corn. Joan Baugher told me it had just been picked that morning.

“Isn’t it a bit early for local corn?” I asked.

“Not for supersweet,” she told me. “Silver queen takes ninety days while super sweet takes about thirty.”

To be honest I had never heard of “supersweet” before.

“To tell you the truth I like the supersweet better than the silver queen,” Joan confided.

We quick boiled a few ears for dinner last night and indeed, ‘twas super sweet. The watermelon was pretty juicy too.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Poor Choice of Words

In the last installment of The Washington Post series “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest wrote that I am hoping to make “a killing off an organization many of his neighbors don't know a thing about.”

Those were the reporters’ words, certainly not mine.

To be sure, my partners and I intend to profit from the risk that we took in starting a speculative building in the middle of a recession. In order to move this project forward at a time when most banks would not even consider a commercial real estate project required us to put our personal finances on the line. If no one steps up to lease this building in the next twelve months the only ones killed financially will be us.

On the other hand, if we are successful, we will realize a return on our investments that is commensurate with the risk we undertook. In no way will it be a windfall.

District 1 Council Endorsement

When Bob Flanagan first signaled that he would challenge Courtney Watson for the District 1 council seat I labeled him a formidable challenger. Bob is a seasoned politico having served as a member of the House of Delegates and as Transportation Secretary under former governor, Bob Ehrlich.

The problem for Bob is that Courtney, more of a centrist than party ideologue, is doing a great job. In four years she has proven herself to be a thoughtful and highly capable legislator. Courtney loves this job and it shows, particularly when it comes to serving her constituents in District 1.

When she ran for election four years ago I supported her Republican opponent, Tony Salazar. The bottom line is that four years ago I really didn’t know much about her and some of my colleagues had encouraged me to support Tony, though truthfully I didn’t really know him all that well either.

Over the past four years I’ve come to know Courtney quite well. I watched her during public hearings and have been impressed with her questioning of those offering public testimony. She seems to work well with her council colleagues and regularly gets high marks for tackling the tougher issues in her council district. When the Doughoregan Manor development plans were being debated this past spring Courtney did not shy away from taking a stand. When the debate was in full heat I asked Bob Flanagan what his position was and he responded that he was “open to receiving information.”

That is hardly a position to rally around. If you are trying to unseat an incumbent who is perceived as doing a good job it would be wise to offer a compelling argument for doing so. In my opinion Bob has failed to do that and therefore I support my new friend Courtney for reelection.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Scene This Week In…

There was a time in Columbia, not that long ago it seems, that covenants were enforced with vigor. All it took was for and HRD exec to notice something out of compliance and bingo bango bongo the offending property owner was notified and the problem was corrected.

That is no longer the case. I don’t know whether this is a result of the demise of The Rouse Company or the indifference of the Columbia Association. I do know that enforcement is not what it once was.
Case in point is this window repair job on the Hanmi, Inc. building on Dobbin Road. The tape job on these windows is over two years old. I am willing to wager that this violates the covenants but nobody seems bothered by it.

Life in the second best suburban community in the country can sometimes be summed up in a picture. The other day, as I was about to sit down to a solo dinner on my patio, I cracked a smile at my place setting. A glass of wine and a Chick fil A sandwich. Now that’s living large in the Burbs.

Local Blogger Makes It Big

Shortly after I started blogging four years ago, Jesse Newburn and Cheri Beck hosted a gathering of local bloggers with David Hobby. At the time, David was already established as a very successful blogger with a worldwide audience. He was the first guy I’d met who was also earning a comfortable living entirely from blogging. I was blown away by his little Blogging 101 seminar in Cheri’s basement.

Now, according to this story by Luke Broadwater in The Columbia Flier his blog, The Strobist, has been “named by Time magazine as one of the Top 25 Blogs of 2010.”

To put this into perspective, according to Royal Pingdom in 2009 there were approximately 126 million blogs.

Congratulations Dave!

You can find the Time story here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dana and Me

As I mentioned in a previous post, I gave a commercial real estate tour of the defense intelligence industry in our midst to Dana Priest, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post back in early May.

This was actually our second tour and this time she bought along a crew from the PBS series, Frontline. Frontline is producing a companion piece to the WaPo series to air this October.

This is this promotional video for that show and it looks like I got a little camera time.

Sign Sensitivity

Yesterday I took a short drive through two of the oldest neighborhoods in District 4, Bryant Woods and Longfellow. I was curious to see which council candidate in this hotly contested district had the most yard signs. In my Ellicott City neighborhood you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Courtney Watson sign.

What I found reminded me of the different sensibilities between EC and Columbia. In Columbia the political sign restrictions used to be more limiting than the county sign codes. Political yard signs in Columbia used to be banned until thirty days prior to an election as opposed to the ninety day ban in the county sign code. In this election cycle however, political sign durational limits in HoCo have been put on the shelf pending the outcome of a federal court case in Baltimore County.

Still, particularly in older Columbia neighborhoods, sign sensitivity still runs high among some old timers. As such, during my drive through those two neighborhoods I only saw three homes with political yard signs and they were all in Bryant Woods and they were all for Alan Klein.

I asked Mary Kay what was up with that and she explained that many of the residents in District 4 still feel that even though the thirty ban no longer exists its intent and spirit should still be respected. She has discouraged her supporters from putting out yard signs too early.

Apparently Alan Klein’s supporters do not share that sentiment.

Another Book Please

I finished the first of my summer reads this weekend. Though I really enjoyed the book, the ending choked me up, sort of like what happened with Marley & Me. I highly recommend The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, particularly if you love dogs. I put it up there with another of my favorite books written from a dogs perspective, Timbuktu by Paul Auster.

Of course that leaves me momentarily bookless. I do have a stack of magazine articles to work through but nothing beats a good book. As the saying goes, outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend, inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

A big old wag of the wordbones tail goes out to my sister Pat for the Garth Stein recommendation. Anyone else read a great book lately?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Unsteady Ground

As we were preparing our news stories for the podcast last Friday, Paul mentioned to me that Columbia, or more specifically, Allview Estates, was a center of seismic activity in Maryland. According to some research that he uncovered about the history of earthquakes in Maryland 30% of all the Maryland quakes between 1758 and 2005 “occurred in Alliew Estates.”

This earth shattering news was also mentioned in this story by David Brown inThe Washington Post yesterday.

“Maryland had 61 earthquakes between 1758 and 2002. The two strongest ones -- in Annapolis in 1758, and in Phoenix, in Baltimore County, in 1939 -- are estimated to have been magnitude 3.7, a tad stronger than this week's. Columbia had 19 shakes, most scarcely perceptible, between March and December 1993.”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Come Monday

Last August I received a phone call from Dana Priest. She asked if she could buy me lunch. I told her that anytime a two time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter wanted to buy me lunch I was game. We met at the Rams Head Tavern in Savage Mill.

Over lunch she told me that she was working on a series about the new emerging “tech corridors” in the country. She explained that the growth of the defense intelligence community at Fort Meade was transforming the I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. into one of those corridors. She wondered if I wouldn’t mind giving her a commercial real estate tour of the area. We drove from Savage to Annapolis Junction, the airport, Hanover, Elkridge, Columbia and Maple Lawn. We ended up, conveniently enough, at my building in Emerson. She thanked me and we parted ways back at Savage Mill.

I didn’t hear from her again until last November. I was looking for something on The Washington Post website and I ran across her name. I sent her a quick email, “Was it something I said?”

She responded within hours saying that there were lots to tell me and that she’d call me the next day.

She didn’t call the next day.

This time I didn’t hear from her again until May. She wanted to buy me lunch again. This time we met at Clyde’s and she now tells me that her series is really all about the growing and multi faceted defense intelligence community. She had been spending time in other centers of this activity like Colorado Springs and San Antonio. The project was coming to close and she wanted to take one more ride around with me. This time she also bought along a friend.

Now, almost a year after our first meeting, the results of her labors will finally begin appearing in The Washington Post next week. The three part series begins on Monday.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Too Much Horsing Around

We moved inside at Clyde’s today for the first time since we relocated the podcast from the Lakeside Café. We soon discovered that the background noise at Clyde’s at 1:30 PM on a Friday afternoon is much greater than it was at Lakeside. I think it was too much.

We set ourselves up in the far end of the restaurant that old timers will recall was once the omelet room. I think we need to find a quieter spot in the lakefront restuarant next time. In this show the background noise was in the foreground.

Our guest, Kate Hetherington, toughed it through with us though and I thought she did a nice job of explaining the ever evolving mission of this vital community resource.

We also had a bit of fun with the controversy over the ill fated inmate program at Days End Farm.

You can listen to our latest podcast here.

Rocking into the Weekend

Mama Wordbones and I woke up around five o’clock this morning. The house was rumbling.

“What was that?” I asked after it stopped.

It turns out that it was a 3.6 magnitude earthquake that was centered ten miles north of Rockville.

Rock on.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Heightened Security

We relocated our offices last week. It wasn’t a big move distance wise, we simply moved over a couple of buildings. You’d think this should be a piece of cake; we are a commercial real estate company after all. We’re moving our clients around all of the time. You’d think we’d be good at this. You’d be wrong.

Planning a new office space is all about the details. Phone switchovers, placement of electrical outlets, toilet paper holders.

In our old office, the toilet paper holders in the bathrooms did not have locks. I know this for a fact. The toilet paper holders in the new digs on the other hand are secured with a special key.

I can only imagine what problem prompted the solution of locking down the toilet paper holders in order that only toilet paper authorized personal could have access.

We haven’t assigned this task to anyone in our office yet. None of us believes ourselves qualified to bear this responsibility. We all realize that, six months from now, if not sooner, that key which is now taped to the toilet paper holder will be nowhere to be found.

Nobody’s Home

My neighbors asked me to keep an eye on their house while they are away for a beach vacation. This is generally a simple task that involves no pet duties, only a watchful eye.

A couple of days ago I noticed a card stuck in their front door. Nothing says nobody’s home to potential burglars like newspapers piled up in the driveway and cards stuck on the front door. When I went to retrieve it I saw that it was from Bob Flanagan who apparently was campaigning in our neighborhood the other night while I was drinking beers in downtown EC with HoCo Rising.

Now I don’t expect much from the cleaning services, yard care companies, delivery guys and so on who leave these notes when someone isn’t home but I would expect a little more discretion from a political candidate.

Trouble in Paradise

The Columbia Democratic Club made their endorsements for the upcoming elections at a meeting in Long Reach last night. Though all Democratic incumbents were endorsed, the smallest vote getter of the evening was Liz Bobo. It took 54 votes out of 107 to receive the clubs endorsement and Liz received 70. While that may seem like a comfortable margin it pales in comparison with the other local candidates. Courtney Watson received 98 votes, Maryann Maher and Jon Weinstein each received 97 votes, Calvin Ball received 96 votes Ken Ulman and Jen Terrasa each received 95 votes, and Mary Kay Sigaty received 88 votes.

This is the first sign that the vaunted Liz machine may be running out of gas. I expect her race to get pretty ugly before the summer is over.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Middle of the Pack

CNBC has released a ranking of the 2010 top states for business in America. Somewhat surprisingly, Maryland ended up in the 27th spot. Considering that only five states have a worse business tax environment , I would have thought the Free State would have ended up further down the list.

On the other hand taxes are only part of the equation. CNBC also took into consideration cost of business, workforce, quality of life, economy, transportation, technology and innovation, education, business friendliness, access to capital and cost of living. Maryland fared pretty well in technology and innovation (#8) and education (#10) but not so well in cost of business (#43), transportation (#43) and cost of living (#45).

What wasn’t so surprising was that Virginia was ranked #2 overall which might help explain why they’ve been so successful in attracting new corporate headquarters like Northrop Grumman.

Back to School

Last night I met up with HoCo Rising for a couple of beers in Ellicott City. I like Tom and I enjoy the opportunity to banter with another astute observer of the HoCo politico scene.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing discussions we had was about the school board. I often feel that there is not enough coverage of the school board elections even though the school system consumes about 60% of the counties’ budget dollars. This lack of attention results in a guy like Allen Dyer getting elected.

I resolve to do better job this time around. I told Tom I want to spend more time taking a hard look at the school board candidates and endorsing those who I believe will serve the county and our students well. One Allen Dyer on the board is one too many.

Name That Company

Back in February, when General Growth Properties announced that they split into two companies, the new GGP company was tentatively called General Growth Opportunities.

I personally thought that name was rather uninspiring.

I was subsequently told by some folks in the know at GGP that this this name was merely a placeholder until a new name could be conjured up. Now, according to this story by Edward Gunts and Larry Carson in The Sun, they have come up with a new placeholder name for the new company, Spinco.

I think I liked GGO better.

Then again why not just resuscitate Howard Research and Development (HRD) and use that?

The story also shed a little more light on what properties would stay part of GGP and what properties would constitute the holdings of “Spinco.”

“Gregory F. Hamm, Columbia's general manager and a General Growth vice president, said the Mall in Columbia, the big box Gateway Overlook center on Route 175 and a series of older office buildings south of Columbia's mall would also be property of the new General Growth. However, Merriweather Post Pavilion, General Growth's regional headquarters on Little Patuxent Parkway and other lakefront property would go to Spinco, Hamm said.”

This could potentially complicate some of the Town Center redevelopment plans. The mall and the surrounding office buildings occupy approximately a third of the Town Center areas. The proposed plans have included transforming the malls massive parking fields into a combination of residential and retail areas with a grid street pattern and structured parking. The concept plans also call for the demolition of at least one of the office buildings that will now be owned by a separate company.

Of course it remains in GGPs best interest to work this out with the yet to be named new entity so perhaps this really isn’t that big of a deal, just more work for the lawyers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In This Months Business Monthly

I like summer festivals. I enjoy the sense of community I get when I walk around amidst the music, food and whatever other diversions they offer. I like running into people I haven’t seen in awhile without the burden of entertaining in my home. That’s why I am concerned about the state of the fairs in HoCo.

When I was but a freshly minted college grad back in the late seventies I worked for The Rouse Company marketing retail and office space in Columbia. This job also involved being the developers’ representative on the various committees that hosted the big summer events like the 4th of July celebrations and the once very popular City Fair. The planning for these events went on year round and the payoff came from the satisfaction of seeing the huge turnouts at the lakefront.

This year, when I dropped in on the LakeFest celebration of the Columbia Festival of the Arts I noticed that the crowds had become about half of what they once were. The festival really hadn’t changed that much from previous years and it suddenly occurred to me that may be the problem. I think the festival needs to rethink it’s LakeFest festival.

It’s not that you can’t draw crowds to community events in HoCo. Wine in the Woods, the 4th of July celebration and Ellicott City’s Midnight Madness continue to entice folks to celebrate locally. It’s just that living between two major metropolitan areas means that on any given weekend you have an abundance of choices of where to spend your time.

In other words, it’s a tough audience.

You can read this month’s column here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Prairie Blog Blues

Since Columbia/Ellicott City have been singled out by Money magazine as the second best small city to live in America I was curious to find out more about the number one place, Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

I decided to look into their local blog scene for starters and it didn’t take long for me to stumble upon Gavin Sullivan. I read a couple of his posts, liked what I read and sent him an email. I asked him if being number one was big news there. I also asked him if the snow had melted yet.

He replied right away.

“I haven't reviewed Money's criteria or methodology--and I enjoy aspects of life in Eden Praire. But to be honest, I consider this to be an astoundingly brain-dead place to live.”


He also told me the most popular blog in Eden Prairie was “The Activist Next Door” which happens to be the local blog of one of the co-authors of The List, Sheila Corbett Kihne. The List is another one of those how to books for culling the herd of men to find the perfect mate. It’s along the same lines as The Rules. I'm surprised her blog isn't called "The Blog."

I couldn’t find an email address on her blog so I left a comment on her most recent post. It hasn’t passed moderation scrutiny yet.

I don’t expect I’ll hear from her though. I may have sounded a bit too edgy. Gavin tells me that Sheila “doesn't allow non-adoring comments on her site, so I've long since been blacklisted there...”

The snow may have melted but apparently there’s still a chill in the blogosphere air in EP.

I think it’s much more congenial here in good old number two HoCo.

We Try Harder

The county is all abuzz today about the newest CNN/Money rankings of the best places to live in America. The Columbia / Ellicott City area came in at number 2 in the biennial rankings. That’s a move up from our eighth place ranking in the same survey back in 2008.

The top spot picked by the editors was Eden Prairie, Minnesota. I’m sure it’s a very nice place but perhaps a little too cold for my liking. The average winter temp is in the single digits.

Since we’ve moved up six places from the last time around this will be a hard act to follow two years from now. Perhaps we should take a page from the perenial number two car rental company, Avis, with their marketing campaign, “We Try Harder.”

Town Center Competition Heating Up

The approval of the enabling legislation for General Growth Properties’ makeover of Columbia Town Center has come none too soon. As I previously posted, Columbia is surrounded by other planned communities that will be competing to attract retailers, restaurants and office users to their communities.

To the south, in PG county, after years of planning, Konterra Town Center East expects to finally break ground in 2012. According to this story by Ovetta Wiggins in The Washington Post, the 500 acre development will include “4,500 residential units, 5.3 million square feet of commercial, retail and office space, and 500,000 square feet of hospitality space.”

“The project, however, has repeatedly stalled in recent years when trying to get it through the planning board, and previous start dates have passed without movement. But developers say they are optimistic about the 2012 groundbreaking.”

To the east the sleepy town of Odenton in Anne Arundel County is about to awaken from its development slumber. The 1,600 acre Odenton Town Center development recently reached a tentative deal with the county on infrastructure financing that will allow the project to move forward. According to this story by Daniel Sernovitz in the Baltimore Business Journal, “the Halle Cos. has agreed to spend more than $12 million to build Odenton Town Center Boulevard, a spine road that will connect several planned developments making up the town center. Halle would, in turn, receive credits it could apply toward millions of dollars in impact fees it would otherwise need to pay the county for its project.”

“As a concept, the town center has been in the works for decades. But its construction has been delayed for years because of a lack of sewer capacity and money to make those needed upgrades. The agreements announced Tuesday would resolve those issues and clear the way for future construction.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Surely You Joust

Though jousting is one of the official state sports of Maryland, the Free State was barely mentioned in this story by Dashka Slater in The New York Times Magazine today. Most of the article was devoted to the Gulf Coast International Jousting Championship recently held in Pensacola.

This was not your stand fare Renaissance Festival jousting. This was full contact medieval stuff.

“Their mounts are 2,000-pound draft horses — Percherons, Clydesdales and Belgians. If you add the weight of horse, rider, saddle and armor, you end up with something like 2,500 pounds at either end of the list moving toward each other at about 25 miles per hour. Roy Cox, a pioneer of American jousting, calculates the force of the resulting impact as 50,000 pounds per square inch. “If you want to experience that for yourself,” he says, “put your thumb down on the cement, take a sledgehammer and slam it really hard.”

That makes the official Maryland version of the sport look pretty tame.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

For All the World Cup Fans Today

Another fine service of Tales of Two Cities....

cartoon from

Rainy Day Ruminations

Since it’s been so long since we’ve had a rainy Saturday I’ve decided to embrace the moment. Mama Wordbones has headed off to fine stores everywhere, Peanut and two friends are ensconced in the Lounge where they’ve been holding up since the sleepover last night. They have computers, video games and the various offerings of FIOS. So far at least they are not bored.

Mars is resting comfortably in the kitchen where there’s a nice cross through breeze. I just gave her a biscuit, just because.

As for me I’m settled into my office, BB King’s Bluesville tuned in, windows open, writing about stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.

One of those things is the District 12B House of Delegates race. Much has been written about this race already largely because it is one of the few truly interesting races this year. It is one of the few races where there is a primary contest and it features an incumbent who was also a former county executive. I was thinking about this race because I ran into John Bailey and his bride at the Stanford Grill last Thursday. They were celebrating either an anniversary or a birthday, I can’t recall. I do recall making a comment about his attire. He was wearing his trademark baby blue campaign golf shirt. I think he said something about wearing it all the time now.

That’s probably a good idea. Unseating an established pol such as Liz Bobo, whose tentacles reach far and deep into the district, is a formidable undertaking. He’s already lost his balance once when he suddenly switched from being a Repub to a Dem in order to improve his odds. That turned off a few potential supporters and he needs all he can get. Time will tell if the switch gives him an edge but it will always be part of his narrative.

So far John has been trying to win converts by not being Liz. That’s not a bad strategy but in and of itself it’s not enough. He really needs to convince supporters that he can defeat her. Many of the people I’ve talked with say candidly that he hasn’t got a chance. A few local wags have even begun referring to him as John But, as in “I like John but…”

What really raised the drama in this race was the last minute entry of a GOP challenger. Up until last week it looked as if the primary winner would not face any opposition in November. Robert Wheatley changed that when he filed to run as a Repub. As HoCo Rising smartly pointed out this changes the dynamics for the anti Liz crowd, assuming of course that Bob is more simpatico to their way of thinking.

I said assuming because I don’t know Mr. Wheatley. I do intend to make his acquaintance soon and will report back accordingly.

Sound of Sunshine

Waking to the rain this morning was a like a visit from an old friend. You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from the plants and trees.

It made me think of my favorite song of the summer of 2010 (so far anyway!); The Sound of Sunshine by Michael Franti and Spearhead.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

A colleague bought my attention to a detail I missed in the logo for the newly established Cyber Command at Fort Meade. Appropriately enough, inside the gold ring is an encrypted message. According to this story by Noah Shachtman in Wired, “On the logo’s inner gold ring is a code: 9ec4c12949a4f31474f299058ce2b22a.”

This coded message relates to the commands mission.

Wired held a contest for the first person, presumably someone outside the command, who could crack the code. The winner got a t-shirt or a ticket to the International Spy Museum.

It only took a little over three hours for the winner, a commenter named “jemelehill,” to crack it.

“USCYBERCOM plans, coordinates, integrates, synchronizes and conducts activities to: direct the operations and defense of specified Department of Defense information networks and; prepare to, and when directed, conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries”

That’s pretty straightforward stuff. I actually liked some of the wrong answers like, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” or “If you can read this, send your resume to”

A Café in the Woods

One of oft touted features of the Columbia Associations redevelopment plan for Symphony Woods is a café. Planners envision this as way to draw people into the park.

Curiously, no one has mentioned who exactly is going to operate this café?

I sure hope it isn’t CA. Operating a restaurant is well outside their core competencies and we’ve already seen what happens when they do that.

Also, how big is this café?

Will it have a liquor license?

The bottom line is that the proposed café should stay proposed until CA finds an operator. It is never wise to build a restaurant and then try and find someone to operate it. That is a recipe for failure. Even if they can find someone to pre lease the space and then build it to their specifications there is still about a 25% chance that the first operator will fail in the first year.

The best way to assure that a café will succeed is to find an established operator with a solid track record. I’ve worked with a few of these including the initial operator of the Lakeside café in Columbia Town Center, Mike Lentz. Mike eventually sold the business to Michael So and subsequently moved to North Carolina.

What I’ve learned is that a good operator is extremely cautious in selecting a new location. For example, in the original lease for Lakeside we successfully negotiated with the landlord to not put a café in any of the other existing buildings they owned in Town Center. We also negotiated the right to apply for a liquor license at some point in the future.

Cafés look nice on paper in pretty architectural renderings showing people enjoying a leisurely day in the park but the reality is that the food service business is a tough business where only the tough succeed.

Despite claims by Liz Bobo to the contrary, this Symphony Woods project is far from “shovel ready”.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Another Dog Down

The old dogs club in our neighborhood lost one of its charter members this week. One Eyed Jack has left the hood.

He literally went out with a bang. He was amongst the last holdouts at our neighborhood July 4th party on Saturday. He hung with two of his fellow old dog club members until the wee hours of Sunday morning. He was a true party animal.

We were never exactly sure how old Jack was. When Melanie found him lying on the road the vet guessed he was somewhere between one and two. He was pretty beat up too, as evidenced by his one eye. Those early hard years were in stark contrast to his golden years. Jack had air conditioning and a soft bed. He was well fed.

Near as you could tell he was a black lab, albeit a big black lab. Perhaps one of his parents was a bear.

One Eyed Jack was a gentle soul. His spirit will be missed. The ranks are thinning.

Sign of Life in Town Center

Since a fire destroyed the building at 10716 Little Patuxent Parkway a year and a half ago the property has sat abandoned and boarded up. The building that once housed Lynn’s Day Spa was an eyesore and served as visual evidence that all was not well with the health of Columbia’s Town Center.

As another sign that the local economy is improving, the building has now been sold to the Atlantic Design Group. The company, currently located in the Oakland Ridge Business Park on Route 108, intends to rebuild and occupy the 9,327 square foot building for their offices.

10716 Little Patuxent Parkway was originally developed by Fred Glassberg in 1985.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

250,000 Times an Hour

The newly established Cyber Command at Fort Meade will have to hit the ground running in order to address the growing number attacks on our national defense networks. According to this story by Bill Lambrecht in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the head of the command, General Keith Alexander “said this month that Pentagon systems are attacked 6 million times a day.”

That’s one big number. The attackers come in all shapes and sizes too.

“The attackers range from foreign intelligence agents and for-profit criminal enterprises to hackers trying to make mischief, security specialists say.”

Empty No More

A commercial real estate colleague and I were having a conversation about the local market lately. Both of us had noticed an uptick in office leasing over the past month particularly the lease up of an office building in the Annapolis Junction Business Park that had been largely vacant for the past two years.

“That indicates to me that things are picking up again,” I suggested.

“We’ll really know that things are picking up when someone signs a lease at 7021 Columbia Gateway Drive,” he replied.

That building has been sitting empty since it was completed in the fall of 2007.

No more. Nucletron, a leader in radiation oncology, has become the buildings first tenant leasing 11,816 square feet.

This isn’t a new company to Columbia or even Columbia Gateway Business Park for that matter. Nucletron, headquartered in the Netherlands, has been in Gateway since 1985.

A Problem of Supply & Demand

You might think that a company looking to hire 100 entry level factory workers in a rust belt city with an unemployment rate of 9.1% would have no problem filing those slots. Not so according to this story by Motoko Rich in The New York Times, Ben Venue Laboratories “reviewed 3,600 job applications this year and found only 47 people to hire at $13 to $15 an hour, or about $31,000 a year.”

The skills hurdle isn’t all that high either.

“All candidates at Ben Venue must pass a basic skills test showing they can read and understand math at a ninth-grade level. A significant portion of recent applicants failed, and the company has been disappointed by the quality of graduates from local training programs. It is now struggling to fill 100 positions.”

That’s not even a high school education!

It appears that a good deal of manufacturing in this country is going be leaner and smarter in the post recession economy.

“Manufacturers who profess to being shorthanded say they have retooled the way they make products, calling for higher-skilled employees. “It’s not just what is being made,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “but to the degree that you make it at all, you make it differently.”

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Scorched Earth

I found out something new today about the truck I’ve been driving for six years. The thermostat can read out three digits.

Since there is no doubt an overload of stories and blog postings about how miserable it is outside I decided to post about a positive effect of this heat and drought.

I haven’t had to mow my lawn for a month. Since we decided that watering was nothing but a waste of water our lawn has entered into a dormant, albeit brown, stage. Some of our neighbors have automatic sprinkler systems. They are still cutting their grass, though even those yards are still a little less verdant than they’d be if we had a little rain.

Brown is beautiful.

Think Cool Thoughts

With a “dangerous heat wave” descending on the Baltimore area I thought it might help to think back to just 145 days ago….

Stay cool!

Now Who’s in a Hurry?

During the numerous public hearings on the Town Center redevelopment legislation, opponents of the plans continually asked the hurry and argued for more time to flesh out the plans. According to this story by Jennifer Broadwater in The Columbia Flier the projected start date for this project “has been pushed back until April 2011.”

Now those very same anti development activists are rushing to get the Symphony Woods redevelopment underway this fall before the other pieces of the plan for the areas surrounding the park are in place.

Liz Bobo is not pleased.

“Bobo said she finds irony in the situation, since some residents have criticized CA in recent years as not being “action-oriented” in regards to their role in the redevelopment of downtown Columbia.”

“Here they are, ready to go,” she said. “I’m bewildered by it.”

The real irony is that Liz is pushing to get this started ahead of the rest of the redevelopment plans. She was one of those voices calling for more time on the overall Town Center plans.

Then again this is an election year and Liz would like to get as much campaign mileage out of the fact that she helped arrange a $250,000 state bond issue for the park. Even though it makes sense for the Columbia Association wait until General Growths plans for the land surrounding the park are in place, that won’t help her much this year.

Her buddy Alan Klein is anxious to hitch his political wagon to this project as well.

The fact is that it makes more sense to wait. Hopefully over the next year GGP and CA can iron out a workable compromise in there divergent visions for the future of the park. It makes no sense at all for CA to forge ahead without a common vision. That’s precisely what the Town Center legislation was intended to prevent. For example, one of the centerpieces of the proposed park plan is a café in the middle of the park. A café sitting alone in the park is destined for failure unless and until the area around is developed.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Whose Land is It Anyway?

Just about a week ago Arlo Guthrie closed out the 2010 Columbia Festival of the Arts in a sell out performance at The Rouse Theatre. Last week Alan Klein held a campaign fundraiser and was pictured in this story singing “This Land is Your Land” with David Glaser. Yesterday these two seemingly unrelated events came together as a blog post for me after reading Gene Weingarten’s column in The Washington Post.

Gene wrote about a recent conversation he had with Arlo. Arlo’s dad, Woodie Guthrie, wrote the song “This Land is Your Land” back in the 1940’s in response to “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin “which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent.


In the column, Gene chided Arlo for the literary license he took while writing the lyrics to Alice’s Restaurant, his anti war opus. For example, Arlo admitted that the “27 eight by ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows” were in truth black and white. This led to the following exchange:

Gene: Did you learn your ethics from your dad? Might it be that this land was really made for just him and a few of his cronies?

Arlo: You know, it's possible! I've heard that song sung at Republican conventions.

Gene: Ha-ha-ha-ha!

Arlo: Yeah!

Gene: Wait. What were you doing at Republican conventions?

Arlo: I'm a registered Republican now. "

"We talked a bit longer, Arlo and I, and it was amicable, but it all went by in a blur. My mind was cartwheeling. By becoming a Republican, Arlo Guthrie has shredded the last remnants of my faith that our hippie principles had any lasting meaning. How can he do this to us?

I'm a peaceable man, but if I had a hammer ..."

Very funny stuff.

Day Off

I took the day off from blogging yesterday. It was the first time in a long time that I didn’t put something up on the blog.

I was otherwise occupied.

For the past four years I have hosted a neighborhood gathering on the 3rd of July. It’s an early evening affair with adult beverages for the adults and ice cream for the kids. Most neighbors bring a desert to share too.

This year the last guests left at 2:30 AM. Mama Wordbones and I didn’t get to bed until 3:00 AM. That’s a little late for this old dog, especially considering that I had gotten up early that day to begin preparations for the annual affair.

Yesterday my energy was spent. We attended a pig roast in the afternoon and that finally did me in. By the time the fireworks went off last night I was crashed on the couch.

This morning we got up and finished the last of the cleanup. The screened room floor has been scrubbed, the red white and blue bunting has been packed away and the various serving trays have been returned to the various neighbors. I have fully recovered.

Now it’s back to regular blogging.

Happy 5th of July.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Once a Cop….

After we finished our podcast with Jim Robey last Thursday I commented to Paul and Dave that it was a shame we didn’t capture our off mic conservations too. We spoke with Jim at length both before we started recording and after we finished. Of course there is a reason we didn’t record those conversations. Jim was much more candid about politics and fellow politicians off the record. I will say that he seemed somewhat surprised that Liz had turned us down for being a guest on the show. That’s all I say about that…for now

Such is the nature of the beast.

Still, the thing that makes Jim Robey such an interesting guy to talk to is the fact that not only has he grown up in HoCo, he has witnessed our growing county from the seat of a patrol car, as police chief, as a two term county executive and now as a state legislator.

When Paul asked him which was his favorite job he didn’t hesitate when he said was being a county policeman. When Jim was on the on the streets HoCo only had eighteen patrol officers.

I bet he liked the county executives salary better though.

You can listen to our latest edition of “and then there’s that…” here.