Monday, April 30, 2012

Wegmans Saga…Finis

I wrote my first post about the Columbia Wegmans over four years ago when the HoCo anti growth crowd, backed by the food workers union, attempted to derail the mega grocer’s plans to open the Columbia store. They filed a series of lawsuits centered on the decision to allow the grocer to locate in what was originally an industrial zone. Prophetically, I titled that post “Wegman’s Saga Part One.”

I would go on to write twelve more Wegmans saga installments over the next three years. The last one, Part Thirteen, was a year ago May when the store finally received its building permit.

My work is done here. I’m better on the front end of development stuff than the back end. Once a building gets built and a new business opens its doors I’ve moved on to the next project. In my book, Wegmans is already a success. Jobs have been created. Next.

The Columbia Wegmans is being covered much better by others now. Over a year ago a facebook group, was started called “I Want The Columbia Wegmans.” It now has 991 members and is a great source for news and rumors about the store. HowChow, the biggest fork in HoCo loco food blogging, even has an opening day countdown clock on his blog.

No doubt I’ll have write another post about the store some time in the future but the saga of getting the Columbia store built and opened is essentially over, finis. We won.

Thirty Dog Day

“How many dogs do you think we’ll see today?”

Peanut and I were just starting our walk around Centennial Lake. It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon and the park was loaded with runners, bikers, walkers and dogs. I guessed fifteen and she said twenty.

We were both way off. As we navigated around the lake we saw thirty dogs of all shapes and sizes, including one that was wearing white goggles whilst being carried by its owner.

Does that really count as dog walking?
“I smell honeysuckle,” Peanut exclaimed shortly after seeing the goggle wearing dog.

I told her that it was probably too early for honeysuckle. I was soon proven wrong. Could it be that this years schizophrenic spring has thrown natures schedule off a bit?

I think it was warmer in March this year than it has been in April.
When we were about two thirds of the way around we decided to take a break. I spotted an empty bench with a nice view looking down the lake. Even on a crowded day at the park it was still easy to find a quiet spot to soak in the spring afternoon.

I’ve walked, biked and run the 2.4 mile loop around the fifty acre lake more times than I can count in the twenty five years since the park first opened. It never gets old and from a dog wearing white goggles to a woman standing on a white bucket in the water, you never know what you might see.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

See Thru Tent

Yesterday was not exactly an ideal day for an outdoor event. It was overcast, a bit cool, with a light drizzle on and off throughout. That’s a risk you take with outdoor functions and usually organizers will hedge their bets by arranging for a tent. The problem is, that on an overcast day, a dark tent can make it seem even more dreary.
The Voices for Children Spring Charity Festival in the Wine Bin parking lot solved the problem by having a completely transparent tent. It made an otherwise dreary afternoon comfortable.

There is a risk in doing this though. On the few moments that the sun peeked through the clouds, the see through tent heated up like a greenhouse. Fortunately for Voices for Children, those moments were rare yesterday.

Dog TV

There are cable television channels that mimic aquariums and fireplaces so it was only a matter of time that one would come along for stay at home dogs.

Great, just what this country needs. One of the great benefits of owning a dog is that it forces the owner to get and go outside every day, to exercise and socialize their animals. Now, with Fido becoming a couch potato, those outdoor excursions may become limited to potty breaks.

This is progress?  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Slots on the Border

The largest slots parlor in the state, Maryland Live!, is set to open this June just across the border from HoCo at Arundel Mills. According to this story by Hanah Cho in The Sun, the new casino “will initially open with 3,200 slot machines. The remaining phase of the facility is due to come online by the fall, said Joe Weinberg, managing partner of The Cordish Cos., the Baltimore developer that owns the casino. When complete, the casino will operate 4,750 machines.”
At 330,000 square it’s a pretty big facility, taking up twelve acres along the entire length of the backside of the mall. In addition to slots and “electronic table games” Maryland Live! will also include a Cheesecake Factory, The Prime Rib and a live music venue with 500 seats called Rams Head Center Stage.
The casino is not wasting anytime signing up gamblers either. Over a quarter million people are expected to pre-register for gaming cards at the Preview Center set up in front of Victoria's Secret in the mall. As an incentive for signing up early Maryland Live! is giving folks a chance to win prizes that range from coffee mugs to $500 in credits for the casino.

When I passed by today I heard a lady yelp for joy as she won $250 in credits. Her friend had just won $100 in credits. Just like in a real casino, every time someone won, more people were drawn to the display, like moths to a flame.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mutual Interests

Whole Foods Markets isn’t the only tenant that Howard Hughes has been trying to entice into the former Rouse Company headquarters building. Not long after John DeWolf showed up on the scene, his team focused on the Columbia Association as a logical prospect. They were already a tenant of the company in the Teachers Building next door and their lease was coming to an end soon.

It seemed like a nice fit on paper. In addition to more room for the association’s offices and board room, they would conceivably take over the operation of the Spear Center too. A Town Center fitness facility was even envisioned for the ground floor.

CA had other ideas. They’ve decided that it is time to be owners of their own Town Center offices instead of continuing as renters. The problem is that there are few if any good opportunities to own or build in Town Center. Most of the prime land for development in the core is owned by either General Growth Properties or Howard Hughes and neither of them is selling. In fact, Howard Hughes could conceivably be considered a buyer if the right opportunity presented itself, perhaps the same opportunity that CA is looking for.

As CA headed off in a different direction, Howard Hughes moved on. They still liked the idea of a fitness club in the lakefront building. It would serve the residents of the 800 plus new housing units they are developing around the Mall. If CA wasn’t interested, perhaps LA Fitness, Lifetime or some other national chain could be convinced to come there.

Is that a missed opportunity for CA?

 At least one current CA board member seems to think so. In this post today on HoCo Rising, Tom Coale suggests that Columbia is on the “precipice of big change” centered around this development opportunity.

“If Howard Hughes finds a financially beneficial long-term agreement with Bally's, Lifetime Fitness, or Gold's Gym, the Columbia Association is in serious trouble.  That's not intended to simplify this $60 million organization into a gym membership, but CA holds a privileged position in Columbia, mostly unencumbered by any significant competition.  This allows for programs like the low-income discount and capital improvements that are not predicted to turn a positive return.  I often wonder how much the dynamic would change if we lost that privileged position.”

I can understand CA wanting to own their headquarters. At the same time, the availability of this iconic Columbia building at the same time the association is in the market is incredibly fortuitous and an opportunity that should not be so easily dismissed.

It would be good for Howard Hughes too. If the Columbia Association is up to challenge it could be a powerful marketing angle in luring prospective residents and businesses to Columbia’s “downtown.”

As far as I know, it may already be too late. I hope not.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Motorcycles in the Mall

Yesterday, on a visit to The Mall I noticed that Ellicott City Motorsports had moved into former Martin + Osa space. It turns out that they’ve been there for the last five weeks. They’ll be moving out at the end of June. This is what retail developers call a pop up store.

The practice of filling vacant storefronts with temporary tenants is a win-win for both retailer and developer. It allows a retailer to try out a location without having to commit to a long term lease and it provides a landlord with an income stream while they seek a long term replacement tenant. It looks better than a vacant space too.
I asked Mike Johnston, one of the owners of Ellicott City Motorsports, how the mall experiment was going. He told me that, at a minimum, it definitely helped increase exposure for his business on Bethany Lane. It also gave him an opportunity to test market an expanded offering of apparel and accessories. Though sales of these items have not been as strong as he would have liked, he thinks timing may have something to do with that. He believes that had he been open during the Christmas season sales of these items would done better. That being said he still said overall it had been a worthwhile endeavor.

It gives the guys a place to hang out for awhile too.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What Color is Your Car?

In case you hadn’t noticed, most of us are driving dull colored cars. According to the annual car color survey conducted by DuPont, white is the most popular followed by black, silver, and grey. Combined those colors account for 70% of all cars built last year.

Red cars accounted for only 10%.

According to this column by John Kelly in The Washington Post, DuPont has been tracking color popularity since 1953. Historically, “the 1970s saw the rise of brown, yellow and orange as top colors. The 1980s added beige to the mix, along with blue. White started its ascendancy in the 1990s. (Red was popular for a while, too, and green had a brief run at the charts.) In the 2000s, white and silver started their domination.”

Our home is no exception to this trend. Out of four cars, three are white, one is red.

Could it be a reflection of the economy?

Nancy Lockhart, the color marketing manager for DuPont thinks “the austerity of the last few years has been reflected in the somber palettes.”

“Also, since luxury models typically come in black and silver, people associate those colors with quality, even in lower-priced vehicles. I suppose manufacturers have been making a lot of white/black/gray because that’s what they think consumers want. And it’s certainly what consumers have been buying.”

In other words, if I can’t be in the one percent, at least I can drive the same color car…or something like that.

This dull car color phenomenon is global too. The DuPont website includes color popularity charts for twelve areas of the world and the deviations between them are minor. Red, for instance, appears to be most popular in Brazil, but still it is only 11%.

Secret Service Neighbors

The press coverage of sex scandal involving members of the US Secret Service is right up there with the media frenzy surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Unless you knew better, you might think that the USSS is made up of a bunch of drunken cowboys.

That’s not what I’ve found. In my many years in HoCo I’ve come to know a few members of the Secret Service as neighbors. Just like many us, they were attracted to HoCo by the great schools, open space and our proximity to Washington, DC. As an added attraction, HoCo is also close to the Secret Service training center in Beltsville.

The Secret Service agents I’ve come to know are dedicated professionals who take their families, their communities and their jobs very seriously. I consider myself fortunate to have them as neighbors.

There are over 4,000 sworn members of the Secret Service. So far, twelve have been implicated in the scandal. The questionable judgment of so few individuals should not be allowed to tarnish the reputations of so many.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Untimely Service

Our mantle clock stopped working last week. Gone were the familiar quarter hourly chimes that had become part of our household rhythm. Even in a day and age of digital clocks, mechanical timepieces have endured.

They are high maintenance devices compared to their digital cousins. In addition to regular winding, the clock requires a lube job about every two years. If you don’t keep it well oiled, it will eventually freeze up. That’s exactly what happened to our clock.

It’s a pretty common problem according to Ben, the Hands of Time service manager. People simply forget to have it done. I asked Ben if they sent out regular clock lubrication email reminders to their clients. “We just started sending postcards,” he told me though he expects they will eventually switch to email. Apparently change comes slowly in the clock repair biz.

So do repairs.

The good news is that you can still get these clocks serviced right here in HoCo. The Hands of Time clock shop in Savage Mill has a staff of four fulltime horologists. The bad news is that they are one of the last remaining clock repair shops in the area. That means they almost have too much business.
Even a seemingly simple lube job can take a couple of months. Most repair work takes longer, like five months longer.

It looks like its going to be awhile before we hear those soothing quarter hour chimes in our house again.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Respectfully Disagree

It gets a little harder to take potshots at people after you’ve spent some time with them. More often than not I come away from a meeting with someone who’s views and opinions I find objectionable with respect if not agreement.

In other words they become human and cease being an abstract.

There are exceptions, after meeting Allen Dyer for instance. I still think he believes he’s the smartest guy in the room. My respect level didn’t change with him after meeting him.

It did with Paul Lemle, our latest podcast guest. I expected a different sort of Paul than I met. I expected a politically ambitious Allen Dyer disciple lefty.

That pretty much describes the guy I met. The difference is that he is honest about who is he is. When he decided to run for the HCEA presidency he told us expected to lose. His main goal was to increase his exposure for the next election. He ended up winning.

He also told me that he was disappointed that union didn’t endorse Allen Dyer again this time around. He remains a supporter.

I don’t get that but I respect his candor.

Expect to see more of this Cajun transplant in HoCo loco politics. He’s smart, has social media savvy, and doesn’t shy from bucking the Dem establishment including the county exec. A year ago I never heard of the guy and now he’s getting more attention in the school board race than the candidates.


In the news recap we beat up the General Assembly some more, kicked the Elkridge hornet’s nest three times and welcomed the news that Starbucks will no longer add insects to their drinks.

We went a little long with this episode, about six minutes longer than last time. You can listen to the 64th episode of “and then there’s that…” here.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Speed Cam Scofflaws

Somebody torched a speed cam in Catonsville this week. I’ll get back to that in a moment. First there’s the other speed cam news this week about how police cars, including HoCo police cars, have been cited 23 times by their own speed cameras. According to this story by Brandie Jefferson in Ellicott City Patch, “ they pay the $40 fine, just like civilians.”

“Citations have also been issued to school and MTA buses, Speed Camera Program Administrator Fred Von Briesen said at Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Howard County Police Citizens Advisory Council (CAC).”

That’s just beautiful.

We also learned that the top speed violation was 82 in a 40 mph zone, that there have been 455 repeat offenders in the first six months, and that only 12 tickets have been contested of which only two were dismissed.

Some rebels are taking matters into their own hands. In a bold demonstration of worthy of a sixties protest, someone lit fire to a speed cam box in Catonsville early Friday morning. According to this story by Brian Conlin in Explore Baltimore County, police are calling it a “first-degree malicious burning…”

You think?

“Police have no suspects and the fire remains under investigation, the release stated.”

I’ll bet it happens again.

In the meantime Washington Post columnist Gene Wiengarten also shares a story this week about how he beat the odds in speed cam court without having to lie. He wrestles with the moral dilemma of the admitting his guilt versus the “inherent unfairness of a system that places the word of a soulless machine over that of a human.”

Then an attorney told him it wasn’t about admitting guilt. The law is about “whether there is ample evidence to convict you.”

He was advised to at least appear to have built a case that would take hours for a hearing examiner to endure.

 “So there I was, at Traffic Adjudication Court with a stack of 8-by-10 glossies and a file as thick as my thigh filled with old newspapers. The hearing examiner looked at it, and me, and my photo, which he said was too blurry, dismissing the case before I had issued even a syllable of fictoid.”

NOTE: Although I linked to the Explore Baltimore County story about the speed cam vandalism, the story in Columbia Patch had the better picture of the damaged box.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Trophy Projects

Every two years, the Maryland Chapter of NAIOP holds an awards ceremony to acknowledge excellence in the local commercial real estate development industry. Last night, at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, HoCo projects and individuals took home eight of the thirty two awards.

Rand Griffin, the recently retired CEO of Columbia based Corporate Office Properties Trust, received the Lifetime Achievement Award and Fred Glassberg was posthumously honored with a Distinguished Merit Award.

The renovation of the county offices in Ellicott City won an award for Best Office Rehab, Liberty Place, across from Columbia Crossing Shopping Center, was recognized for the Best Exterior (including public/common areas) and EmersonOne in the Emerson Corporate Commons won Best Interior.

Maple Lawn took home two awards, Best Suburban Mixed Use project and Best Tenant Interior for Colfax Corporation.

Congratulations to all the winners.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Three Things about Food

Famous Dave's is closing at the end of this month. That’s the bad news. The good news for their customers and employees is that Famous Dave's BBQ will reopen on May 20th. At least that’s what the guy pouring over blueprints labeled “Renovation” told me. The Columbia Crossing restaurant is getting a major makeover, both inside and out.

For the majority of the wait staff this means cooling your heals for three weeks this spring. “It’s just long enough not to want to go back,” one of them quipped this afternoon.

Gerald Koh and his Bon Fresco Sandwich Bakery in Columbia were featured in this story by Rina Rapuano in The Washington Post today. The writer notes that Koh has some chops in the baking business having worked for a period under master baker Mark Furstenberg.

“Gerald Koh credits the guru with teaching him how to make artisanal breads - although the 58-year-old Columbia baker and owner of Bon Fresco Sandwich Bakery says he had a good handle on several varieties even before that.”

I’m a fan. My favorite sandwich is his corned beef on ciabatta, served hot. His couscous side dish kicks butt.

HowChow has helped popularize the suburban phenomenon of dining with a parking lot view. This weekend I was inspired to suggest yet another suburban dining view, the stormwater management pond.

Last week, on one of the nicer days, I grabbed lunch at Qdoba on Dobbin Road. Taking advantage of the sunny afternoon I sat down at one of the outdoor tables which overlook a stormwater management pond. Last Saturday, Mama Wordbones and I had a late dinner at El Hildago in Elkridge. It was a nice evening so we opted for an outside table, overlooking another stormwater management pond.

That has to be another uniquely suburban experience.

The Price of Passion

Art Tollick is passionate about tennis. Art is so passionate about the game that for the past eight years or so he dedicated himself full time to getting a world class tennis facility built in HoCo. Yesterday, that dream was likely dealt a fatal blow when the county exec decided to move forward with the development of the new Troy Hill Park without the Troy Park Tennis and Sports Center.

According to this story by Kevin Rector in Explore Howard, a recent study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority determined that the “complex's ability to attract major tournaments would not be guaranteed, the cost of operating the facility as a public amenity would be high, and its economic benefits would be diminished by the county's lack of nearby hotels.”

Art’s group, Howard County Tennis Patrons, successfully lobbied the county to dedicate thirteen acres of land in the future Troy Hill Park for construction of a $44 million tennis stadium and training facility. Initially the group had hoped to use private money to develop the project but the recession dampened enthusiasm from private investors. Undaunted, the group then sought additional financial support from the county. Before the county would commit, they wisely commissioned the study.

I should note that I was not a supporter of public funding for this tennis park. I was skeptical of the economic benefits and I felt that the site itself had some serious issues, particularly with regards to parking.

That being said, I still admire and respect someone who puts themselves “out there” to fight for something they passionately believe in. For Art, the failure of this effort has to sting but sometimes that is the price of passion. Still, it is far better to have tried and failed then not having tried at all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pix Fix

Almost two years ago I decided to try and rely exclusively on my smartphone for photos. My old Sony Cyber-shot had been dropped one time too many and no longer could be relied upon to take a decent picture.

It wasn’t a decision I made easily. Early on, readers would occasionally comment on the quality of the pictures I posted here. That was cool feedback so I really wanted to maintain a certain level of quality. I was hoping the phone cam would be up to the task.

It wasn’t. Since I made the switch no one commented on the quality of To2C photos again until today. It’s understandable. The pictures I took with my phone just weren’t as good as the Sony and consequently I wasn’t happy either. Two weeks ago I finally broke down and bought a Sony DSC-W570. I posted my first picture with the new camera on April 5th.

I don’t consider myself a photographer but I do enjoy taking pictures and sharing them. What I like most about this camera is that it takes a pretty good picture without much effort on my part. It is also compact enough to slide into a pocket.

I did take one last blog photo with my phone though. It’s the picture in this post. I suppose the phone camera will still do in a pinch.

Fair Weather Car

As I was leaving my office for lunch yesterday I spotted this old beauty heading towards to parking lot in front of the MVA Express office on Dobbin Road. I had a few minutes to spare so I followed him into the lot.

It was a 1930 Ford Model A.
“They had lots of variations of this car,” Buzz Spencer told me. He was more than happy to spend some quality car talk time with me. He showed me the clock embedded in the rear view mirror and even opened up the rumble seat so I could have a look. Buzz purchased this car already restored but indicated that it needs a little work now. “The last restoration was in 1978,” he told me.

In that regard he’s lucky. Buzz told me that he can get any part he needs for this car right across the HoCo border in Mt. Airy at Brattons Antique Parts.
Buzz says there are almost a million of these cars worldwide that are still licensed to operate on public streets. Initially I was a bit surprised by this but later I discovered that Ford made almost five million Model A’s before production ended in 1931. I asked him how fast it can go. He said he once got it up to 70 mph but that wasn’t much fun. “It sounded like it was going to explode.”

I’m not surprised. This car is like a big tractor and when he started the engine for me that’s’ exactly what it sounded like.

Buzz puts about a thousand miles a year on the car now, taking out only on nice days... like yesterday.

This particular Model A was assembled in Norfolk,Virginia and, according to Buzz, may have once been owned by the Baltimore City Police Department.

Before we parted ways I asked Buzz what his “everyday” vehicle was.

“I drive a Chevy truck with over 250,000 miles on it. It still rides nicer than this car.”

Yeah, but I'll bet nobody approaches him in a parking lot when he drives that!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Be As Lost As Me

It’s a tough day to be laboring indoors. Earlier today, while cruising along the tree lined back roads of HoCo with the windows down and the sunroof open, the Zac Brown Band came on the radio.

I was momentarily taken away to blue skies and blue water.
Then my phone rang…

By the way, the Zac Brown Band is coming to Merriweather on May 31st. Last I checked you can still get tickets.

Scene This Week In…

We went tree shopping this weekend. One of the Leland Cypress trees we planted six years ago never quite took. Despite valiant efforts by Mama Wordbones to nurture the tree back to health, it continued to decline so we finally decided to take it off life support. We needed a new tree.

One of the first places we visited was Williamson’s Nursery on Frederick Road, just outside the historic district in Ellicott City. As we pulled into the nursery I noticed a building that wasn’t there last time we visited. I soon found out that this was the Williamson Snow Shack, a new snow cone stand operated by Nicole (Williamson) Tiede. Nicole told me that she opened the stand last summer “in the middle of the season.”

That's probably why I missed it. I'm early season snowball guy.
It’s a nice setting for a snowball stand, sitting out amongst the nursery stock but that also puts it a bit off the road. It would be easy to miss unless you knew it was there. Now you know.

Nicole opens for the season this Wednesday. Her hours are noon to 8 PM Monday through Saturday but she says she might stay open longer as spring turns into summer.

One of my favorite spots in Columbia is Wilde Lake Park and the path around the lake is one of HoCo’s best kept secrets.

If you haven’t discovered this spot yet, you might want to wait awhile before checking it out. The Columbia Association has now begun a long awaited dredging operation on the Wilde Lake.  It’s going to be a mess for awhile. 
I just hope the Wilde Lake dredging goes better than the Lake Elkhorn dredging did.

As a side note, Wilde Lake is one of wildlife photographer Michael Obermans favorite haunts and the subject of a new exhibit. According to this story by Michael Giuliano in Explore Howard, when looking at Obermans photos “you can't be blamed for thinking you're out in the wilderness rather than in the center of Columbia.”

The exhibit, called “The Nature of Wilde Lake…The Final Chapter,” is in the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House in the Wilde Lake Village Center. It runs through April 28th

Now you know that too.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Political Kibble

This past week after, attending Ken Ulmans fundraising event at Maple Lawn and the HoCo Blogtail party at the Second Chance Saloon, I came away with a hodgepodge of notes. None of them had enough meat on the bone for a single blog post so I’ve thrown them all into one blog post bowl, sort of like kibble.

Arriving at Looneys Pub for Ken Ulmans party on Tuesday I ran into Elanie Northrop, the grande dame of HoCo realtors. She was a bit flustered after having failed twice to find a way into the bar. I quipped that this was probably a scheme by Healthy Howard to get people to walk more. She did not seem amused. Later I saw that she had bought along a copy of her self published self help book. I wonder if she was planning to give Ken a signed copy.

Speaking of Ken, I did a get a minute to chat briefly with the county exec about the state budget debacle. Ken sees the turmoil in Annapolis as an opportunity to distinguish himself from the other potential gubernatorial candidates like Gansler, Franchot and Brown who are more closely tied to the Annapolis power structure. I also asked him if he’d be interested in coming back on our podcast soon. He readily agreed and then kidded me a bit about the size of our audience. “How many listeners do you have have, ten?”

Actually I think it is closer to eleven.

Ann DeLacy, the second highest finisher in the BOE primary, is in for a rough summer. The darling of the teachers union is seen in many quarters as just another Allen Dyer and, as a result, opposition to her candidacy is growing. At the HoCo Blogtail party on Wednesday night, a friend suggested that if I wanted to see what Ann is like serving on a board I should sit in on a Harpers Choice Village board meeting to see her in action. Apparently it is quite revealing. 

Perhaps someone will make a video that we can share.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday the 13th...Downtown

“It’s probably too late to get in at Tomato Palace.”

It was a little after seven this evening. Mama Wordbones and I had just finished our Friday cocktail hour. We were hungry.

Lately our Friday routine has revolved around getting seated at a HoCo loco restaurant by six thirty. On Friday nights, in Howard County, getting a table for two on a Friday night at a tier one establishment, without a reservation, after six thirty, is challenging.

As we drained our happy hour drinks, we laid out a strategy. Our first stop would be the long shot, our first choice, the Tomato Palace. Experience told us to expect a one hour wait. We were seated, in our favorite spot, within minutes. That Friday the 13th mojo was seemingly working for us.

“It is slower than usual tonight,” the host guy admitted.

Indeed it was, and we were the luckier for it.
As we settled into an elevated booth, beneath the star lit skylights, with glasses of wine in our hands, I mentioned to Mama Wordbones that I hadn’t written a post on To2C today.

“That’s not like you,” she noted.

True. I’ve been otherwise occupied today as they say. Sometimes it is difficult to juggle being a dad, a partner, and a blogger. The blog has the weakest position in that three way contest.

“I could always just write about getting into Tomato Palace after seven on a Friday night,” I posited.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Just Add Drama

Need a little drama in your life?

Just press the red button...

An Audience of One

As we were setting up our podcast this week, Joan Lancos stopped by to say hello. She had been in The Mall shopping when she spotted us. “Mind if I sit in?,” she asked.

No problem. She sat at the opposite end of the table from our guest for the entire forty minutes. It was actually fun having her there. We usually don’t have an audience for our show but that is sort of the whole idea behind doing a show out in the open like we do. We like having people sit in and listen. It adds a nice dynamic. I should also note that Joan is responsible for the picture above. Nicely done.

I was thinking about this when I read a message that our next guest, Paul Lemle, posted on the howardpubliced yahoo group. Paul invited readers to join us at  The Mall for the podcast.

“They use the space outside Williams Sonoma for the recording. I think it's around 130PM, and I will make myself available for your questions before and after. Dennis might accept some question/topic ideas from you to cover during the show--visit the blog and drop him a line if you are interested.”

Yes, by all means please come. We’d love to double our audience!

Now about our latest show…

With the 2012 season kicking off at the end of this month, we thought it would be fun to have Jean Parker, the General Manager of Merriweather Post Pavilion, join us and tell us what’s happening at HoCo’s premiere outdoor music venue. We talked about the upcoming season and what the future holds for the 40 year old amphitheater.

This was her second time on “and then there’s that…

It was also a pretty big HoCo loco news week. In addition to rehashing the BOE primary elections we also talked about the general assembly budget debacle, flags in traffic circles, fire districts and even an update on St. Peralynna, the patron saint of guest houses!

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

For a Nickel and the Common Good

Lately I’ve noticed more people in HoCo using their reusable bags for grocery shopping. When I first became a full fledged convert to bringing my own bags to the grocery store almost three years ago, it was still a novelty to see other shoppers doing the same.

Not so much anymore.

In HoCo at least, more and more people are moving away from the bane of environmentalists, the plastic bag. What is surprising to me about this is that it is happening without a loco bag tax to force it. Last year, MoCo was the first county in Maryland to impose a tax for using plastic shopping bags. A year later, despite predictions of an impending statewide bag tax, MoCo remains the only county in the state to have one.

Could it be that people are switching just because it is the right thing to do?

I’d like to think so. I can see how a bag tax might cause people to migrate away from plastic bags but when there isn’t behavioral penalty involved how else do you explain this shift?

On the other hand, there actually is a financial incentive for using your bags, at least at Giant stores. Giant offers shoppers a nickel rebate for each reusable bag they fill at the stores but you have to remember to ask for it or do it yourself at the self check-out. Other stores are offering similar incentives.

“I always forget to do that,” Mama Wordbones confided to me the other day when we were talking about this. So, for her the financial incentive is not that much of an incentive. Even if Giant didn’t offer the nickel rebate, she’d still use her own bags, now that she's gotten into the habit.

And besides, it really is the right thing to do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Beer Wins, Wine Loses

HoCo beer drinkers got some good news from Annapolis this week. The General Assembly passed legislation allowing bars and restaurants to sell draft beer in reusable containers, often referred to as growlers. According to this story by Lindsey McPherson in Explore Howard the law “specifies that the refillable containers must be between 32 and 128 ounces, sealable and branded by the license holder.”

Wine drinkers weren't so lucky. Joe Barbera, the proprietor of Aida Bistro in Columbia, had hoped the new law would also include wines sold by tap. His restaurant is one the few places that sells tap wines, but the amendment that would have included bottled tap wine sales never made it out of committee.

"I'm a little disappointed that that wasn't part of the (bill)," Barbera said. He said the amendment probably failed because wine on tap "is something fairly new and it's not available in a large number of locations, like there are places that have beer on tap."

Give it time Joe. It took awhile to get direct shipping too.

They Passed a Budget

Last night at Ken Ulmans fundraising event in Maple Lawn, I congratulated Delegate Frank Turner for the colossal failure of the Democrat controlled General Assembly with a Democratic governor to pass a simple budget.

“We passed a budget,” he bristled.

That’s true. In fact, as a result of infighting amongst the Dems, a budget was approved that most Repubs actually favored. The Dems labeled it the “Doomsday” budget while state Repubs referred to it as a “living within your means" budget. According to this story by Michael Dresser and Annie Linskey in The Sun, Senate Minority leader E.J. Pipkin thinks the budget is fine just the way it is with no need for a special session to fix it.

"At the end of the day, there was a lack of leadership from the governor," he said. Pipkin said there's no need for a special session. "We have a balanced budget. We've done what was needed. Let's go home," he said.”

Frank also told me that he doesn’t read the blogs. “I don’t have time for all that,”  he said. I told him that didn’t surprise me besides I added, he might not like what he sees.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

HoCo Loco Numbers / 1st Qtr 2012

It has taken me a couple of weeks to get to the March 2012 edition of Howard County Maryland Economic Indicators, a quarterly publication of  the HoCo government and the HoCo Chamber of Commerce. The report is a pretty good snapshot of Howard County with sections on retail sales, banking, real estate (commercial and residential) agriculture, construction, technology and services.

The bottom line?

A mixed bag, some areas of the local economy are just okay while others are thriving. For example:

  • Butter and cheese in HoCo is getting cheaper while bacon and beef pricing “is trending upward.”

  • HoCo new car dealers are expected to do well this year. The nationwide forecast for new car dealers “is for 8% growth in 2012.”  HoCo loco new car dealers expect 12% growth.

  • The average home price in HoCo in December 2011 was 4.4% higher than in December 2010, though homes priced “$600K and higher are still slow to move.”

  • Banks have money to lend but “continue to be cautious about deploying assets.”

  • The number of loco building permits issued in December 2011 were 7.6% higher than for the same period a year earlier but so far, 2012 year to date, has seen a 3.7% decrease from the prior year.

The county coffers are getting fat again too. Fiscal year to date income tax revenues are up 25% “above FY 11 levels through the same period.

For those true HoCo loco econ wonks, you can find the complete report here.

Monday, April 09, 2012

In This Months Business Monthly

Returning to Columbia from DC on Route 29 last weekend, I took note of the highway sign just before the Broken Land Parkway exit. It read "Columbia Town Center."

That won’t sit well with some folks.

I suspect that the nascent Downtown Columbia Partnership will soon lobby for a sign change. They prefer calling the redevelopment area “Downtown Columbia.” Last month, when Ken Ulman tapped Mark Thompson to lead the redevelopment process in Columbia's urban core, the flag he stuck in the ground said “downtown,” not “town center.”

Town Center is out. Downtown is in. Howard Hughes has already rebranded their Columbia website.

So what’s in a name?

It depends on your perspective. For me downtown conjures up major league stadiums, buildings over fourteen stories tall, Chinatown, Little Italy and a certain amount of chaos. Town Center, on the other hand brings to mind open space, tree lined streets with wide sidewalks, convenient parking and relative safety.

The "downtowners" see this differently. In this post on HoCo Rising, Tom Coale notes the current high office vacancy rate around The Mall as evidence of a perception problem. He wonders what Don Draper, from the TV series Mad Men, would do with this.

“I bet one of the first things he would say to all of us in Columbia is "Stop calling the center of Columbia 'Town Center.'  It's 'Downtown.'  You want people to imagine bustling streets, foot traffic, heck, maybe even hot dog carts.  'Town Center' sounds like some bullseye serving no other purpose than providing a geographic reference point.  'Downtown' sounds like a place of arrival."

So there you have it. You can find this months column here.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Paul Lemle Knows Best

The recent primary for BOE candidates bought to light how the HoCo teachers union goes about making political endorsements. Many have been surprised to discover that the decision on who the HCEA will endorse is made by very small percentage of the union membership. As union president Paul Lemle wrote in a comment thread to this story by Brandi Jefferson in Ellicott City Patch, “our government relations committee, our Board of Directors, and our Representative Council all worked very hard to make recommendations our 5,300 members could support.”

One wonders why they didn't simply take a poll of their membership on whom to endorse. These are the people on the front lines of the HoCo public school system and may be some of the most informed voters when it comes to the school board. For teachers who don’t live in Howard County and therefore are unable to vote in this race, polling them would at least allow their voice to be heard in the process. Is the union leadership afraid of that?

I understand the argument that leaders are elected to make informed decisions on behalf of larger constituencies. In this case however, when leadership claims its endorsements represent the consensus of the rank and file, having a relatively small sample make those decisions smacks of old time back room political deal making.

The unions endorsement process further raises questions as to how this small cadre of union insiders is chosen in the first place and how much weight each group has. For example, can the union board overrule recommendations made by their own government relations committee and Representative Council?

And if the board does choose a candidate other than those recommended by these two groups, would their membership know of this internal dissent?

Of course this is all about holding and weilding power. Opening up their endorsement process to the full union membership would diminish the perceived political power of the unions leadership. On the other hand, continuing with this charade of democracy could eventually imperil their own legitimacy. In the wired world, soliciting the opinions and preferences of the entire 5,300 members is relatively easy and it seems only a matter of time before someone figures it out and does it. When this happens, and the general memberships preferences do not align perfectly with their leadership, democracy will have taken root in the HCEA.

Until such time, the endorsements of the teachers union should be taken for what they are, the biased views of a select few union insiders.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

So True

I heard this song on the radio a couple of weeks ago and I still can’t get it out of my head so I thought I’d share…besides, it’s a dog song.
So true.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday First Friday Second Sunday and so on

There’s a lot going on today. It’s Good Friday, it’s the beginning of Passover and opening day all rolled into one. It’s also First Friday in Ellicott City. Tonight most stores will stay open until nine with music and stuff, not to mention Yappy Hour at the Wine Bin. This will be the first First Friday of the year.

This, however, should not be confused with Second Sunday. In another twist on the turn of the leap year calendar, this Sunday is also the second Sunday of the month and marks the seasonal return of the Second Sunday Market which makes it the first second Sunday.


Today, when I dropped in to the Mon Ami Boutique for an Easter card for Mama Wordbones, a window washer was busy sprucing up the buildings for their market day debut. Coming out of the Little French Market I also noticed that a new hookah bar had opened next door. Several years ago I received a call from a guy who said he wanted to hookah bar in HoCo. It took me a few minutes to realize he was saying hookah not hooker. At first I just thought it was just one of my crazy friends screwing with me before I realized the guy wasn't a pimp. Anyway, though the Ghost Lounge advertises itself a hookah bar, it’s mostly a tobacconist. Brian, the owner, is a UMBC alum.

I also saw the Man Cave had moved. They now occupy the space that once housed Sarah & Desmonds Café. This just goes to show you that even in the healthiest county in Maryland, rib sticking man food sometimes wins out over the healthy organic stuff

Go O’s

It’s opening day.  It’s a clean slate. All is possible. The boys are back in town.

I heard this routine for umpteenth time yesterday and I still laughed out loud…a couple of times.

Go O’s!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Diminished Retail Holiday

Easter doesn’t seem to be the big retail deal it used to be. In the early eighties, the golden years of the American shopping mall, Easter was right up there with Christmas as a major retail season.  At The Rouse Company, Easter marketing programs for each of their individual malls were painstakingly planned and executed to help push store traffic and sales. The Rouse Company is said to have invented the concept of charging retail tenants a percentage of their gross sales as a component of the rent. This gave the company a vested interest in seeing that the mall did well.

The Mall in Columbia was certainly no exception. Display advertising, special shopping bags, mall décor and promotions for the Easter season were planned out close to a year in advance and carefully choreographed for maximum effect.

I think one or two Rouse malls even had azealea trees for awhile, a spring offspring of our beloved poinsettia tree.

It’s a far cry from today, walking through the Mall this afternoon I was hard pressed to find anything to remind me it was Easter until I came across this pathetic little Easter bunny photo concession.
It must be hard for Marlys East to see this. At the peak of the Rouse mall development years, Marlys was the Vice President of Marketing for the malls. She put together mall events that set the standard for the entire industry back then. The mall  marketing directors in the field feared her wrath lest they come up short in any category. If she spotted a table in your mall that was draped but not pleated, you’d likely hear from her.

She still lives in Columbia and, on days like today, I wonder if she laments the diminishment of the spring holiday in our retail palaces. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Election Day Observations

Though he was greatly outspent by the sitting judges throughout the primary campaign, yesterday Clarke Ahlers seemed to have a volunteer at every polling station, even the remote ones like Worthington Elementary School. In fact, when I voted at Worthington, Ahlers was the ONLY candidate with a volunteer working the polling place. Later in the day, whenever I passed a polling location in my travels around HoCo, I could spot a Ahlers volunteer in their trademark white t-shirts.

That was impressive. Hopefully those supporters will stay engaged in the loco politico scene even though their guy lost.

Even though she dropped out almost at the beginning of the campaign and never participated in any of the public forums, Kelly Casey Van Horn still managed to get over 1,500 votes. Either she has that many friends or 1.87% of the people who went out of their way to vote yesterday had no idea what they were doing.

It was a bad day for candidates from Elkridge. All three Elkridge candidates, Leslie Kornreich, Olga Butler and Corey Andrews were defeated.

While I successfully picked five of the six winners in the BOE primary, I grossly underestimated the strength of Ann De Lacy. I had her finishing fifth but she came in second, garnering almost a thousand more votes than popular incumbent Ellen Flynn Giles who came in third. It turns out that the sixth spot was the hardest call. Early in the evening Patricia Gordon held a slim lead over Bob Ballinger with Allen Dyer not that far behind. By 11:00 PM Bob had begun to pull ahead and with 97.4% of the votes counted he has a lead of 248 votes which will likely be enough for him to prevail even after absentee and provisional ballots are counted.

The Board of Elections needs to make their website more Apple friendly. I was having a beer (or two) with Tom Coale for the early returns using an iPad to access the Board of Elections website. The bottom two thirds of the results for the BOE races were cut off. Tom tried using his iPhone to access the site and got the same result. When we tried it with my Android phone we had no problem.