Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It’s Time

I am saddened to learn that Emily Lincoln died last weekend. Emily was a friend and political ally in the fight for Town Center. As has been noted in Columbia2.0 “She was passionate about the changes that we’ve all been advocating for and she yearned to actually see them happen.”

The news of her passing came as I was writing a post about community leadership. Sources have informed me that at least two members of the Columbia Council will not be seeking reelection this year, Phil Kirsch from Wilde Lake and Gregg Schwind from Hickory Ridge. If past history is any indicator, there is a good chance that at least one of these seats will go to someone who gets talked into it and ends up running unchallenged. Some villages will be hard pressed to even get a quorum of voters on election day.

This is how the board of directors is constituted for the Columbia Association, one of the largest employers in HoCo with an annual operating budget of $60 million. Somebody gets talked into it. Sometimes a good person gets talked into it, but not always. Sometimes the good person is not available and you have to go to the second or third string to get someone. Right now there are at least two third stringers sitting on the board.

It’s insane.

There’s hope though. A new generation of leaders like Tom Coale in Dorsey’s Search and Ed Coleman in Long Reach have stepped up and taken seats at the council but more good people like them are needed.

There isn’t much time left either. Some of the best of the old guard are already gone.

Leap Day Voucher

Not sure how to commemorate the extra day we get this month?

In The Washington Post today, writer Dan Zak provides a Leap Day Voucher that allows the bearer “to flout routine, shirt the norm, damn the torpedoes, raise a ruckus and generally carry on in an indulgent manner…”

Certain conditions apply of course.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dress Rehearsal in Town Center

The Howard Hughes Corporation held an event at the former Rouse Company headquarters building in Town Center this morning. Invited guests were given flowers, coffee, popcorn, granola, handmade soap and dog biscuits in return for mingling in front of the building.
It was a dress rehearsal of sorts, presumably for Whole Foods Markets though no one would admit that on the record. Sources informed me that HHC had received a tip that the Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, was going to do a drive by of the building this morning so they decided to dress the building up in retail form just for him. Apparently the deal to bring Whole Foods to the building is almost done and this tour was one of the final hurdles.
HHC could not have asked for a better day. The sun was shining and it was unseasonably warm.
Since we no longer have a dog, I took my dog biscuits over to the only four legged guest, a Newfoundland named Yogi. Yogi approved.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Late Fees

This morning I was sitting on a plastic chair in the passport agency office in DC. No WiFi, no coffee. I was doing penance for my procrastination. I had no one to blame but me.

My passport had expired. I became aware of this problem just over two weeks before I was going to need it. It was too late to renew by mail. I needed to make an appointment for getting an “expedited” passport. You have to do that in person, and not just anywhere either. There are only twenty five passport agencies in the entire U S of A. Thankfully, one of them is just down the pike in DC.

Today I arrived about fifteen minutes early for my 10 AM appointment.  It didn’t start off well. They wouldn’t let me in with my coffee. The place has all the charm of a police station. On the other hand, for what it lacked in warmth, it made up for in efficiency. I was fully processed and headed out the door by 10:30 and back in my office in Columbia about an hour later.

Just in time for lunch.

“Where’s the next closest passport agency,” Mama Wordbones asked me as she considered worse case scenarios.

The next closest place you can get this expedited service is Philadelphia.

Today, I was thankful that I didn’t have to drive to Philadelphia

Breaking Wind

Count me among those who believe that Governor O’Malley’s proposed wind farm is a bad idea. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney is in the pro wind farm camp and this weekend he made his case for it in this column. He claims that the wind farm will “create more than 1,000 new manufacturing jobs and put Maryland on the ground floor of a new industry with great potential.”

“In Annapolis, the lure that could tip the balance for wind power is the chance of starting an industry to sell concrete foundations, steel towers and blades, and power cables for wind farms up and down the Atlantic seaboard.”


I’m not seeing that and even McCartney seems to contradict this claim by pointing out that western Europe is already fifteen years of us in wind power development.

Denmark and Germany started first and now are benefiting by selling equipment to Britain and other latecomers.”

So wouldn’t Maryland be one of those “latecomers” too?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tux Talk

The Evening in the Stacks library fundraiser last night was promoted as “black tie optional, masks encouraged.”

I’ll get to the masks later. Black tie optional, for me at least, means that I get to wear my tux and not look like I'm part of the wait staff. I don’t really get that many opportunities to put it on either; the last time was the Chamber Roast of Dick Story almost a year ago.

A tux is cool. It can make an average guy look above average. It’s easy too. Wearing one doesn’t require a guy to have any fashion sense, at all. All he needs do is stick to the basics and he’ll look great, no matter what.

That being said, even the basics are subject to occasional periods of  wild experimentation. Around ten years ago, the collar on the pleated white shirt for some fashion forward fellas, was all but eliminated, save for two little wings. The winged collar is now pretty much out of vogue as men retreated back to the safe harbor of a classic shirt collar.

Not all the men wore a tux last night, in fact the majority did not. The county exec didn’t even wear a tie. I know he owns a tux. Maybe it didn’t fit.

That’s the other problem with a tux. It’s usually wise to put it on for a test drive a week or so before you need it just in case it requires an adjustment here and there.

The county exec didn’t wear a mask either. Neither did Courtney Watson or Guy Guzzone.  Mary Kay Sigaty wore a mask, as did Jen Terrasa, and Ellen Flynn Giles.

I don’t think Guy was wearing a tux either but at least he had a tie.

I believe this mask divide among the loco politicos last night signals something significant. Wearing a mask is silly and last night the library invited us to be silly. Those who opted to join in the fun demonstrated an ability, for at least one evening out in the public arena, not to take themselves too seriously.

I like that.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fun with Numbers

Yesterday, during the news recap of the podcast, but Paul and I stumbled with some big numbers. First, Paul fumbled a bit with decline in amount of money that the state returns to the county for education. He said that the state contribution had gone from $17 million when Ken Ulman first came into office to $3 million last year. It is actually worse than that. It has gone from $30 million to $3 million. $17 million is the amount that the governor would like HoCo to contribute to funding teacher pensions.

Shortly after that, Paul mentioned the $697 million budget request from the school system and I asked him if he was sure that was right. I asked him if he didn’t mean $67 million. No, he replied, it was $697 million.

Of course he was right. Out of the counties almost billion dollar budget, over 60% goes to the schools.

My bad.

A million here, a million there

Our guest this week was Marsha McLaughlin, the HoCo Director of Planning and Zoning. As someone who often finds herself in the midst of contentious HoCo loco land use issues, we thought it might be interesting to get to know a little more about her.

For example, did you know she once worked in planning and zoning in the US Virgin Islands?

As she says "They have zoning everywhere."

You can listen to the 60th episode of “and then there’s that…” here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

WAPO Blasts Guv on Teacher Pensions

The Washington Post editors laid into Governor Martin O’Malley and Senate President Mike Miller for their proposal to shift half of the costs of teacher pensions from the state to the counties. They headlined the editorial “The Buck Stops Nowhere.”

The paper acknowledges the problem, calling the states current system for funding teacher pensions as being “rife with perverse incentives.”

Maryland’s scheme is the product of decades of improvisation, fiscal mismanagement and political pandering. Not surprisingly, it is virtually unique among states — and almost uniquely senseless.”

It’s really worth reading if you have any interest at all in how the state is being run and by whom. I also note that this opinion is coming from The Washington Post, what some might consider a bastion of Democratic ideology.

That’s not to say that the Dems are all lined up behind their governor either, notably a few county executives, including our own. Ken Ulman was front and center in this article by Michael Dresser in The Sun, complete with a shot of him gripping the lectern as he addressed the press in Annapolis.

"This puts a potentially devastating squeeze on local government," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat. "Find the $239 million somewhere else in the budget."

Lindsey McPherson in her Political Notebook column in Explore Howard, wrote the HoCo loco Dems  are “are standing behind Ulman.”

This one actually crosses party lines. If the guv and the Senate president have their way, Howard County will take a $17 million hit on the roughly 40% of the county budget that doesn't go to the schools. That impacts everything from parks to police.

As the Post editorial notes ““The main problem with the governor’s plan is that it sticks counties with a heavy bill but gives them no power to control costs. After all, school boards, not counties, negotiate teachers’ contracts. And state law forbids counties from cutting funding for schools unless enrollment shrinks.”


It’s a mess and needs to be fixed, that much all can agree on. To do so will require real leadership and political guts, to go for the big fix. That means all parties will need to share a little pain; the state, the counties and most importantly, the unions and the school boards. It may also require a reexamination of state law.

I wonder if anyone in Annapolis has the cojones to pull that off.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gateway vs Town Center

A client recently asked my advice about whether he should consider relocating his firm from Town Center to the Gateway corporate park. His existing lease will be expiring soon and the company is contemplating a move to the largest office park in the county.

Town Center just seems a little dowdy,” he explained.

I prefer the word tired to describe Columbia's aging downtown . There hasn’t been a new office building built in Town Center since 1992, the most architecturally significant office building in Town Center, the former Rouse Company headquarters, is badly in need of a major renovation. Even the lakefront, the very heart of Columbia, is not quite what it once was. The bell tower is long gone and the rest of the public space shows signs of decades of neglect.

Gateway, on the other hand, now has almost twice the amount of office space than Town Center with the newest office building coming online in 2009. When Merkle decided to relocate their corporate headquarters to HoCo they choose Gateway. When major defense contractor SAIC wanted to expand their HoCo presence, they expanded in Gateway. Gateway has arguably become the premiere business address in HoCo. 

So I recommended Gateway right?

No, I advised him to stay in Town Center. While Gateway makes sense for some firms, it isn’t for everyone. Consider just the lunch thing. Unless you brown bag it or have a company cafeteria, lunch in Gateway for the majority of office workers, always involves getting in a car. In Town Center most workers can walk to a restaurant for lunch or to a park to enjoy their brown bag.

And the dowdy/tired thing?

While it is true that Town Center today lacks the luster of the earlier years of the new town, all of that is about to change. GGP, HHC and CA are poised to invest millions in a vast Town Center makeover. Over the next five years or so, the lions share of private sector development activity in HoCo is going to occur there. At the same time, CA has embarked an ambitious program to remake the two most important public spaces in Town Center, Symphony Woods and the lakefront. It’s an exciting time as Town Center is about to become to the most happening place in HoCo.

In a sense, Gateway represents the past where we developed office parks that catered to the automobile, separate from our residential areas. Town Center, on the other hand, represents the future where gas costs more than five bucks a gallon and being able walk or bike is not only healthy but an economic necessity.

Pushback on Traffic Cams

Even as HoCo expands the use of red-light cams and speed cams, opposition to these robo cams is getting organized and, in some cases, forcing governments to reconsider their deployment. According to this story by Corey Dade on NPR, opponents suggest that  “red-light cameras actually increase the number of accidents, making the devices little more than cash machines for camera manufacturers and financially strapped governments."

"Cameras aren't about safety; they are about revenue," says Michael Kubosh of Houston, whose decision to intentionally run a red light as a protest ignited opposition and led to a 2010 voter referendum dumping the city's camera program. After settling a lawsuit brought by the company that supplied the cameras, Houston finally shut off the cameras this year.”

In case you still think that these cameras are more about public safety than a new source of revenue, consider this:

“A study by the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG addressed the financial incentives behind camera programs. PIRG found that many contracts between local governments and camera companies require the parties to divide revenue from fines. Some contracts mandate the narrowest duration of yellow lights, preventing governments from lengthening the time — which could reduce the number of violators ticketed.”

I don’t know what kind of financial arrangement HoCo has with the camera companies but I’m going to look into it. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The People vs Peralynna

Last night the county council held a public hearing on a bill that would amend the current zoning for the Inn at Peralynna Manor in Columbia. The inn began as a small boarding house in 1996 but has expanded over the years to the consternation of some neighbors. According to this story by Lindsey McPherson in Explore Howard  the inn on Route 108 near the Iron Bridge Wine Company “has been operating as a nonconforming use since late 2001, when a change to the county's zoning regulations eliminated the Lynn's boarding house special exception.”

One neighbor claimed that recently a guest was staring into her yard from a balcony at the inn making her uncomfortable about wandering around her yard in her housecoat or pajamas.

Take a Margarita to Lunch

As if the warm weather wasn’t enough to bring on a bout of spring fever, today is National Margarita Day.


Until this week I wasn’t even aware that there was such thing but listening to Radio Margaritaville on Sirius XM I found out that it is celebrated every year on Februrary 22nd.

Sort of like the St. Patricks Day.

After spending minutes of research trying to find out who started this I came up blank. At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter. Having a margarita in the middle of February is like spring training for summer fun to come. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Happy Presidents Day

And meanwhile, some folks are left to wonder why we get a day off to honor our leaders but make folks work on the day we're supposed to elect them...

The Disciples of Wind Power

Despite a preponderance of data that suggests the guvs proposed wind farm is a bad idea, its proponents are waging an aggressive campaign to get it passed. According to this story by Aaron C. Davis and Greg Masters in The Washington Post, a coalition of “steelworkers’ union members, health-care providers and religious groups,” are rallying behind Governor O’Malleys plan.

“If Gov. Martin O’Malley’s controversial plan to require ratepayers to subsidize development of an offshore wind farm passes, the calls, e-mails and visits from members of this unique coalition will have played no small part.”

Some members of this coalition are approaching the issue with a certain religious fervor.

One of them was activist Lise Van Susteren, a Bethesda psychiatrist who staged a brief run for the U.S. Senate in Maryland as a Democrat in 2005.

“I now know enough about what’s happening to people’s health to say anybody who doesn’t support this legislation has blood on their hands,” Van Susteren said.


I guess I'd better go wash.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Papers Route

When The Washington Post closed it’s HoCo office back in 2006 the media company was grappling with the harsh budget realities of declining advertising revenue and stagnant subscriber growth. Branch offices don’t come cheap.

Retrenching from the suburban beat even further, in December of 2008 The Baltimore Sun and the Post announced that they were going to begin sharing content rather than competing for stories on the same turf. For the Post this allowed them to pull back even further from the burbs. In the most recent example of this content sharing, the Post picked up this Jessica Anderson story from the Sun about the proposed HoCo growler legislation. In their "shared content" version, the Post editors dropped the HoCo loco angle. While Randy Marriner with Victoria Gastro Pub and David Venable with the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company were predominately featured in the original story, the HoCo loco innkeepers were edited out in the Post. It was as if they had planted the white flag at the HoCo border.

In the not so distant past, The Post and The Sun battled for readership in HoCo. HoCo readers and advertisers were once coveted by both papers. Now, it appears that the Post is ceding that ground. Last week in this story by Jeremy W. Peters in The New York Times, the reporter notes that the paper “serves a purely local print market, one that for decades had limited competition, and it has depended on local advertisers and subscribers who have since fled to the Web.”

Senior Post writer and editor Robert G. Kaiser put it even more succinctly:

“When I was managing editor of The Washington Post, everything we did was better than anyone in the business,” he said. “We had the best weather, the best comics, the best news report, the fullest news report. Today, there’s a competitor who does every element of what we do, and many of them do it better. We’ve lost our edge in some very profound and fundamental ways.”

So far, The Post has not taken the same route as The Sun with digital subscriptions. Subscribers to the print edition still receive free access to the digital Post, which includes a nice little app for the iPad. On the other hand, The Sun has taken greater initiative in embracing loco blogs to supplement its loco coverage while the Post has relegated the DC metro blogging community to deep within its website.

It will be interesting which of these different routes provide a road map for survival in the digital age.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Signs of Spring

“I haven’t seen any crocuses yet,” I commented as we left the house. I’ve seen plenty of daffodils popping up but had yet to spot the familiar little flowers that typically bloom at winters end.
“There’s one,” Mama Wordbones pointed out about midway through our walk.


Just around the corner I noticed another sure sign that warmer days are on the horizon.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Scene This Week In…

The first thing I noticed when I pulled in the parking lot at the Long Reach Village Center today was that the parking was full of cars, at one o’clock in the afternoon. Since the Family Market opened earlier this month in the former Safeway store, the village center is showing new signs of life.

I’ve been in the new store twice now. The first time was Valentines Day when I just popped in for a quick look on my way home. I ended up buying Mama Wordbones a rose. The Family Market has a flower shop.

I also ran into Sarah on that first visit. It was her first time too. “It’s awesome,” she declared clutching her bag of mussels. We both acknowledged HowChows review for piquing our curiosity.
What I found interesting is that Sarah doesn't live in Long Reach. She lives in another part of Columbia, at least a couple of miles away. She had to go out of her way to visit the Family Market. This afternoon I noticed that the majority of the people coming in and out of the store were Asian. I suspect that many of these shoppers don’t actually live in Long Reach either. This leads me to conclude that, as long as the store maintains its focus, the Family Market will make it, even in a post Wegmans world.

Peanut likes the store too. She accompanied me on the second visit and spotted Mochi ice cream in a freezer case the end of an aisle. “That tastes like heaven,” she cooed. Of course I bought a box, opting for the chocolate instead of the red bean. Not bad.

As I was leaving I noticed that I needed gas. The pump price for mid grade at the village center gas station was 3.899 a gallon. I know prices have gone up but that still seemed high. I was headed towards Ellicott City so I took a chance that the price would be lower over there.

It was.

At the station in the rock just across the river in Baltco, the same grade of gas was 3.739. I saved another ten cents by using my Giant gas points. That little program and the hand held scanners have returned me to the Giant fold.

Ellicott City was pretty busy today too. The combination of no school and great weather bought the people down to Main Street and the little black and red dresses gently swaying in the breeze.
Ah spring, it won’t be long now…

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Good Dog Story

Every so often I’ll read a story about dogs that reminds me why I’m a big fan. There is something remarkable and even a bit mysterious about the special bound a dog can form with a human. Even more remarkable is when that special bound helps a child with a disability cope with the world around them. In this story by Melissa Fay Greene in The New York Times Magazine I learned about an organization in Ohio called 4 Paws for Ability that trains dogs for children with autism or behavior disorders, seizure disorders or diabetes including a few dogs that have been able “to predict the medical incidents 6 to 24 hours in advance. (How they do this is something of a mystery.)”

The dogs also help the kids break out of the social isolation that their disability often creates.

“We place dogs with kids in wheelchairs, kids on ventilators, kids with autism, kids with dwarfism, kids with seizure disorder and cognitive impairments; but if your dog does tricks, other kids want to meet you. Kids will ignore your disability if you’ve got a cool dog.”

The organization works with prisoners in select facilities who assist in training the dogs.

"One prisoner with a sense of humor returned a dog who — upon hearing the command “Play dead” — lurched, as if shot, staggered across the floor, knelt, got up, buckled, whined piteously and then dramatically collapsed.

Cool dog. Lucky kid."

Gone With the Wind

 Governor O’Malley remains undaunted in his attempt to get Maryland ratepayers to help pay for an offshore wind farm. After failing to get his wind power initiative passed in last years General Assembly he was right back at it again this week when he appeared before the Senates Finance Committee. According to this article by Michael Dresser, Tim Wheeler and Annie Linskey in The Sun, “he took tough questions from senators about the cost, feasibility and employment potential of his wind energy bill. For the governor, it was a return trip to a committee that heard his testimony on a previous version of the bill last year — then decided to shelve it because of the same concerns.”

I think someone should show the guv the March issue of Wired Magazine. In an article by Juliet Eilperin  entitled “The Clean Tech Meltdown”  he’d read that “a confluence of factors -- including fluctuating silicon prices, newly cheap natural gas, the 2008 financial crisis, China's ascendant solar industry and certain inescapable technological realities -- the clean-tech bubble has burst, leaving us with a traditional energy infrastructure that is still overwhelmingly reliant on fossil fuels.”

“Wind has also taken a hit. Not only can the turbines not match the current costs of gas-fired plants, the flood of cheap Chinese solar panels can make them less attractive as a green option, too. The pace of new wind-turbine installations in the US has declined by more than half since 2008.”

And the guv still thinks it’s a good idea to add two bucks to every ratepayers bill each month to back his wind farm?

That wind doesn’t blow. It sucks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Genius is Relative

The best way to integrate a new piece of equipment like an iPad into your established digitized world is to simply replace everything thing else at the same time. Should you actually be in the position to do that, you might as well go all Apple. That will be the simplest way to have all of your little devices chirping along on the same sheet of music.

I don’t have this luxury. We don’t even have an IT department at work. We have a guy who basically keeps our server going and sells us new laptops every three years or so but that’s pretty much it. I last saw him sometime around Thanksgiving.

He probably wouldn’t have been much help with our iPad issues anyway. He’s no Apple fanboy.

I say our because the other guys in the office are kind of waiting on me to figure everything out first. I'm the guinea pig.

I figured I was covered on the Apple side. I mean we have our very own Genius Bar, right here in HoCo. I made an appointment.

I suppose that if my issue had involved getting two Apple devices to make nice with each other, my assigned genius would have awed me with his technological prowess. Unfortunately my problem involved devices and software from that other company which seemed to vex my genius. I was not awed.

After fiddling around with both machines he pronounced the problem resolved. The problem was not resolved.

I’m back on my own.

No Gas Tax, No Highway

The good news for those who slog through bumper to bumper traffic on traffic on Route 32 everyday, is that the widening project from two lanes to four  between Route 108 in HoCo and Route 26 in Carroll Co is on the states top priority roads projects list.

The bad news is that the guv says it won’t happen without his proposed increase in the gas tax.

According to this story by Donald C. Fry in, this project and 23 other “high priority” transportation projects won’t become a reality “until more revenue is generated for the state's Transportation Trust Fund, MDOT Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley told county elected leaders during meetings in the fall to outline the state's six-year Consolidated Transportation Program.”

What the guv is not saying, at least publicly, is that “even with a revenue increase to the transportation fund, not all of the projects on this priority list would likely be able to begin to move forward.”

“Few in Annapolis rationally argue the need for these projects that are critical to our state's economic climate and quality of life. But rancorous debate will center around when, and how, to begin meeting this compelling need.”

On the other hand, if our county exec becomes the next guv this loco high priority road project may move a little closer to the top of the heap.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

And Then There Were Fourteen

The field of candidates for the HoCo Board of Education has been reduced by one. A knowledgeable source has told me that Kelly Casey Van Horn has informed the HoCo League of Women’s Voters that she is withdrawing because her continued candidacy may “affect her ability to get teaching jobs in Howard County.”

No doubt.

Godiva Guys

This morning, after spending some quality at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store, I spotted this line outside the Godiva store in The Mall.

It’s all men of course.

Happy Valentines Day!

Ellen Ellen Ellen!

Much has already been written about the marathon Board of Education meeting last week where Brian Meshkin’s whiny antics dominated the proceedings. He told his fellow board members that he was “heartbroken” and his “feelings were hurt,” at the way he was treated for asking the board to accommodate his absence. Brian is the CEO of a struggling medical supplement company based in Los Angeles but he lives in Maple Lawn. How he ever thought he could adequately perform his board duties while traveling the west coast every other week is beyond me.

But that issue has already been addressed in this post on HoCo Rising.

The best part of the evening, as far as I'm concerned, was when Allen Dyer tried to make this board blow up all about him. Board member Ellen Flynn Giles was having none of that and gave him a pretty solid smack down.

Ellen is running for reelection this year. In the primary on April 3rd, the field of fifteen candidates for the three open board seats will be winnowed down to six. Though I plan to wait until after the candidates forum on March 5th to make my final choice of two, one spot for me has already been filled by Ellen Flynn Giles. She has easily earned my vote for reelection. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Snatching Smartphones

Smartphone theft has risen dramatically over the past few years. Last year, in DC alone, thefts of smartphones, iPods and tablets accounted for forty percent of the 500 reported robberies. According to this story by Clarence Williams and Cecilia Kang in The Washington Post, “police in the Washington area and elsewhere are expressing their frustration in plain terms, publicly asking regulators and wireless-network operators to allow stolen devices to be shut down remotely through unique identification numbers within them.”

Some products already have this feature but the wireless carriers industry group questions its effectiveness.

“This isn’t the solution, because when you look at other countries that have tried this, it doesn’t work,” said Amy Storey, spokeswoman for CTIA, the national wireless trade group.”

It appears that the best way to hold on to these devices is to be vigilant. In other words, it’s probably not a good idea to pass out in a Metro station with an iPhone in your hand.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Car Hopping

We stopped by the Motor Trend International Car Show this weekend. Neither of us is actually in the market for a car right now but it seemed like a fun thing to do on an otherwise cold and overcast day in February. We spent hours hopping in and out of all kinds of shiny new cars.
Like the Prius with the solar powered ventilation system. According to the Toyota website, the solar panel embedded in the roof powers “an electric fan to draw outside air into, through, and out of the cabin once the inside temperature reaches 68° Fahrenheit. It will lower the cabin temperature to near the outside ambient temperature to help make the cabin more comfortable when reentering the vehicle.”

That was pretty cool.
We saw a movie star car too. The Acura display included a S.H.I E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) edition TL. I haven’t seen the movie but I like the concept of the sound cannon as an accessory.

This month cars were also the cover story by Tom Vanderbilt in Wired magazine. Tom writes that the future of cars that drive themselves is closer than you may think. "GM’s Alan Taub predicts that self-driving cars will be on the road by the decade’s end."

“The more interesting question isn’t when we will let go of the wheel completely but what form and purpose the car will have when we finally do.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing this latest automotive development with Ian Kennedy after the State of the County luncheon. He quickly grasped the significance of this for those late nights out when you don’t have a designated driver. No problem, just pre program the car to take you home when you climb back in.

I was thinking about another benefit. If these predictions hold true, by the time they come to take my car keys away (“Dad, we don’t think you should be driving anymore…”) it won’t matter. Just like a horse, my car will always find its way back to the barn even if I can’t.

Reading, Redistricting, and Puppies

The problem with having a really good show is the expectation it raises for the next show. Our podcast with Chris Oxenham and Roger Caplan on January 27th turned out to be one of the more popular shows we’ve done so far and we really wanted to build on that. Unfortunately, due to a schedule accommodation with our next guest, we ended up not having anyone lined up for Friday as of last Monday.

Paul and I discussed simply cancelling this week’s show. Dave, thought we were giving up too easily. “There are plenty of people you guys could have on,” he suggested. That's the type of thing producers do, keep the show moving.

Dave pointed out that there were two big annual fundraisers coming up in HoCo, Evening in the Stacks next weekend and The Chocolate Ball on March 3rd. Why not have someone come on and talk about them?

He was right of course and we ended up having a another fun show.

We decided to go with the library fundraiser since it was coming up next weekend. By the end of the day Monday, Christie Lassen, the Director of Public Relations for the library, had agreed to join us to talk about her event and the new Miller Branch library.

Another reason to go ahead with the show was the abundance of loco news stories since the last show, including the highly charged Board of Education meeting the night before the podcast.

I also found out that that Paul’s family dog, Bailey, came from an out of state breeder and was “flown in” when they got her. I’ve heard of people driving to another state to pick up a dog but Paul is the only person I know who’s ever had their puppy flown in. Consequently he had some pretty strong opinions about the protests against Charm City Puppies.

You can listen to the 59th episode of “and there’s that…” here.

Chocolate Wine

Friday night, while shopping for wine at The Wine Bin in Ellicott City, Mama Wordbones discovered a selection of “chocolate” wines. Though the concept of a chocolate flavored wine did not appeal to me at all, she was intrigued. She asked Dave Carney to let her know if he ever planned to offer tastings of these after dinner wines.

“No,” he replied, “but take this bottle home and let me know what you think.”

He handed us a bottle of Chocolate Zin from the St. Michaels Winery on the eastern shore.

I suggested that in return, we’d write a short review. Mama Wordbones would taste and I’d report, just in time for Valentines Day too.

She liked it.

I should note here that Mama Wordbones enjoys an occasional glass of port. She is more amenable to the concept of specialty cocktails than I am. For me, an after dinner drink is another glass of what I was having for dinner. I took a sip and found it to interesting but not something I would otherwise order. This is hardly surprising; women in general seem to have a special relationship with chocolate that most men lack.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Who We Are

There is a core of activists, living in Columbia, who are seemingly obsessed with the notion that anyone living in the planned community shares some universal value of community. The People Tree codifies this notion for them; People working and living together in harmony. They see every action that occurs within the lien paying borders that geographically define the town through the glasses of Jim Rouse. Whether it is the removal of a graphic from a logo or making improvements to a public park, these self anointed “keepers of the flame,” righteously challenge any perceived affront to these values.

I wonder if Jim Rouse would be amused. He had a pretty good sense of humor.

Columbia is physically special. Its winding roads and abundant open space are a welcome departure from the typical suburban development of the sixties and the seventies. It also has funny street names.

And it’s full of people that are no different, or have any special values than any other community in the Baltimore Washington, D.C. corridor.

I started out to write this post about graffiti. Driving past the first phase of the new Blandair Park in Columbia today, I noticed that, even before anyone has had a chance to enjoy these wonderful new fields, vandals have already left their mark.
This happened right smack dab in the middle of Columbia. It could have just as easily occurred in Catonsville or Laurel. I’ll bet the profile of the perpetrator or perpetrators’ would be readily recognizable in all three communities.

When I got home I read this post by Julia McCready on her blog, Village Green/Town Squared. Julia takes issue with the notion of a mythical developer “Mr. GoodRouse” and the expectation that someone at Howard Hughes Corporation will now attempt to fill those shoes. That isn’t going to happen and she suggests that “waiting for the "Great Good" someone to make things right with Columbia leaves us vulnerable to anyone who knows the real rules of the game…”

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Show Me a Sign

Three curious sets of banners appeared on lighting poles in the parking lot of the Howard Hughes Building in Town Center today. One set read “Natural” and “Organic.”
Another set read “Local” and “Value.”
The third set read “Fresh” and “Quality.”
I don’t know about you but this sure looks like something you’d put up for a specialty grocer, in particular a specialty grocer who also happens to use the colors of green and white.

John DeWolf, Senior Vice President of the Howard Hughes Corporation, released this statement this afternnon.

“The banners attempt to demonstrate the potential for alternative uses for the building and its associated parking areas beyond simply an office use. All of this remains “hypothetical” and “prospective” at this point. And, we may do more experimenting in the near future. Hopefully, soon we can announce with great certainty some results from all this effort.”

Okay. I feel a little better about things now. Yesterday I became a bit concerned when I received an email from HowChow. He wrote that in Whole Foods latest quarterly earnings press release they listed eight new leases, none of which were in Maryland, much less HoCo. “They won’t announce more stores for three months,” he added.

That may be so but judging by what’s going on in the parking lot, its safe to say that something is going on.

In This Months Business Monthly

Seventeen years is a long time, even for a Twinkie. I thought about that as my seventeenth annual box of birthday Twinkies arrived in the mail last month. My sister Pat, who now lives in St. Augustine Beach, has dutifully sent me a box of Hostess Twinkies, accompanied by a pack of birthday candles every year since 1995.

This birthday Twinkie tradition started right here in HoCo with a column I wrote for a now defunct newspaper. In 1994, a fellow named Ed Pickett tried to buck the trend of declining newspaper readership by launching Howard Counties first ever daily newspaper. He called it the Columbia Daily Tribune.

It lasted three months.

I had met Ed in 1992 when he rolled into town and started a monthly business publication originally called the Columbia Business Journal. I don’t know how he got my name but he invited me to meet him for a drink at Piccolo’s (now Three Brothers Pizza) and asked me to write a column for his paper. After being threatened with a lawsuit by the Baltimore Business Journal, Ed changed the name to the Columbia Business Monthly, which was eventually shortened to The Business Monthly.

Ed was a bit of bit of restless character and by 1994, with The Business Monthly actually making money, he decided to start a daily paper. The problem was he tried to do this with very little capital. By the time the paper “suspended” publication he owed money all over town and he soon left for greener pastures.

I stayed in touch with Ed for a few years after that. He ended up in Maine where he started the Bangor Business Monthly which, eventually grew to include monthly business papers in Penobscot Bay and Kennebec under the banner of The Maine Business Monthly Group. Those papers ceased publication in May of 2001 due to declining advertising revenue. Undeterred, he then moved to Portland to try and start another daily paper called the Portland Morning Sun. It lasted for thirteen issues. Last I heard he was living in Pittsburgh.

Through all of this, the birthday Twinkies have endured. You can read this months column here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Itching for a Fight

The snow crews were ready today. Wherever I went I saw them in their trucks, plows mounted, beds full of salt, waiting patiently for the call to take on the predicted storm. There were county crews, state crews, power company crews and a host of private plow drivers that look forward to making a few extra bucks when the snow falls. They were pumped.

The call never came.

It’s been lean times in the loco snow emergency business this year. Despite the ominous signs we received back in October, this winter has been a bust when it comes to snow.

To be fair, it could have easily gone the other way today. A few degrees cooler and we would have had a winter mess on the drive home.

And these guys would have been ready.

Thompson to Lead Town Center Redevelopment

Mark Thompson, a former Director of Commercial Land Sales for GGP and The Rouse Company, has been selected by County Executive Ken Ulman to lead the redevelopment of Columbia Town Center for the county. The newly created position will help the coordinate the development process among the various stakeholders involved and will report directly to the exec. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

Last night the HoCo County Council tabled the councilmanic redistricting legislation (CB 57-2011) after failing to come to an agreement on the changes recommended by the Redistricting Commission. According to this story by Lindsey McPherson in Explore Howard, after attempting to iron out their differences in a recent work session, “the council had still not reached consensus on what, if any, changes should be made to the commission's plan.”

“Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, and council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, all filed amendments to the plan that are in conflict with one another.”

It looks like Dr. Ball and Jen Terrasa are the only ones without a plan. That may be the best plan.

By tabling the bill the council is basically kicking the can down a very short road. If the council fails to reach agreement to any changes by March 15th, the recommendations of the Redistricting Commission become law.

And perhaps that will provide enough political cover for all concerned.

You and Your Heart

Maybe its just because Valentines Day is coming up and my otherwise cold heart is in a softer place, but when I heard this song on The Spectrum this morning it made me smile.

With or Without Apple

This afternoon, while getting a haircut at The Mall, Wayne Shepard and I got into a conversation about the fiscal health of the forty one year old shopping center. I told Wayne about this mall story by Stephanie Clifford in The New York Times yesterday that said  “as retailers crawl out of the worst recession since the advent of malls, many are realizing they are overbuilt and are closing locations at a fast clip.”

The article goes on to note that there hasn’t been a new mall built in this country 2006. In fact, more than a few have been torn down and redeveloped including the first enclosed mall on the east coast, Harundale Mall in Glen Burnie.

The Mall in Columbia is actually one of the more successful malls in the country. Since opening in 1971, the 1,200,000 square foot mall has adapted with the times through four renovations, the last being in 2003. Wayne recently asked GGP how the mall was performing on a sales per square foot basis.

“With or without the Apple store?” was the response.

It turns out that the Apple store, with sales exceeding $5,000 per square foot, skews the overall numbers by about $100 per square foot. With the Apple store, The Mall sales are averaging over $600 per square foot, well over the national average for malls of $386 per square.

And without the Apple store numbers?

It is still over $500 per square foot.

I was pretty blown away by these numbers. According to Wayne, the only store in The Mall that has a higher annual sales volume than Apple is Macy’s

Monday, February 06, 2012

Identity Crisis

Maybe it’s because I’m an old dog but more than a few people have come up to me lately asking if I plan to do anything about the People Tree issue. Well not exactly the People Tree itself, but a graphic representation of the Columbia Town Center sculpture that many believe represents the very soul of the planned community. Some of these folks are downright outraged at plans by the Columbia Association to remove this icon from their logo.

I’m not one of them.

If it is such a sacred symbol, shouldn’t the outrage instead be directed at plastering it over everything from business cards to garbage cans?

The People Tree sort of looks out of place with the Columbia Association name anyway. It’s sort of like a weed the way it pops up in different places.

In this iteration it rises between Columbia and Association and towers over the organization like dandelion on steroids.
In this take, the tree encroaches on the letter “C.” It makes me want to get out the hedge trimmers. In fact, that looks like what happened in this version of the logo on the Hobbit's Glen page of the CA website.
Some facilities took a virtual  weed whacker to the tree graphic and eliminated it altogether.
The bottom line is that CA doesn’t even own the rights to the People Tree image. Those rights are now held by Howard Hughes Corporation, the successor to Columbia’s original developer, The Rouse Company. In the early years of Columbia’s development, the People Tree image was used as a branding symbol for the new town. It was used in all manner of marketing materials including, ties, lapel pins, and tote bags.

In my opinion it looked better on those things than a dumpster.

And finally the People Tree sculpture isn’t going to go away like the poinsettia tree was a few years back. It’s staying right where it has always been. In fact, I imagine we might begin to see it make a comeback in some of the marketing efforts for redevelopment projects in Town Center in the very near future.

A Week from Today

The last HoCo Blogtail party was held back in October so we are a little overdue for another one. Apparently Brain Dunn, the author of Columbia 2.0, felt this way too. He got in touch with the major domo of the HoCo blog scene, JessieX and in very short order they put together a party for one week from today, the day before Valentines Day.

The last party I was a little preoccupied with our podcast and did not spend nearly enough time meeting and greeting the members of the continually expanding loco blogger community. I hope to do a better job of meeting new people next Monday.

Brian has done a nice job engaging younger generations of Columbians in the redevelopment of Columbia. He launched Columbia 2.0 at a time when the discussions of the communities future were dominated by voices from its past. I believe he has helped make a difference.

The party will be held on Monday, February 13th from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM at the new Corner Stable Pub in the Kings Contrivance Village Center. If you plan to attend, please help JessieX by registering in advance.