In delivering his annual state of the county address, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman touted the usual accomplishments — Howard's AAA bond rating, good schools, safe neighborhoods, etc. But this year, he said, it's not enough to say that Howard County is strong.
"I'm not satisfied," Ulman said. "Too many strong communities have fallen prey to complacency and watched as the times passed by. I will not allow that to happen here in Howard County.
"We must seize this moment and remake our region as the model for the 21st century's innovation economy," he added.
The beginning of Ulman's speech, which was delivered Thursday afternoon before Chamber of Commerce members at a luncheon held at Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City, harped on the "innovation economy" and what Howard is doing and can be doing to create jobs and opportunities.
Howard County, Ulman said, has a wealth of resources and bright people.
"Our opportunity, and the one we must commit ourselves to seizing, is creating an environment where the big ideas that surface are nurtured, supported and given the resources they need to become the next big thing in the marketplace," he said.
Ulman noted the recent creation of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, an arm of the Howard County Economic Development Authority that he said "will wrap resources around entrepreneurs and provide the road map from innovation to commercialization."
However, Ulman said Howard County cannot transform the economy alone. He talked about the importance of regionalism, providing the Inter-County Broadband Network project as an example.
"Fast, reliable and affordable broadband is as critical to the 21st century economy as the electrical grid and interstate highway system were to the 20th century economy," Ulman said.
The first half of the speech really resonated with the audience full of business leaders.
"It was positive," said Mark Cissell, who is the president and CEO of a public accounting and consulting firm. "It's good to know that our (local) economy is still thriving in a rather dismal (national) economy."
Cissell agreed with Ulman about the importance of job creation in the county.
"That's why we spend 64 cents of every dollar on education," Cissell said, repeating a fact Ulman mentioned in his speech. "Education leads to jobs."
After listening to Ulman's speech, Randy Gartner, who works for a marketing firm, said: "Ken is a great example of enthusiastic leadership, and it's contagious.
"It's also motivating because if he's starting all these initiatives, so could we," he added. "We're looking for ways of bringing that innovation."
Ulman also talked about how important it is for Howard to continue to provide great schools, safe neighborhoods and a high quality of life. He said the economy and continuous cuts in state assistance — from $30 million in state aid (not including aid for the school system) in 2007 when Ulman took office to $4 million this past year — make it difficult to sustain Howard's quality of life.
"And now the state wants to send Howard County a bill for $17 million to cover the costs of teacher pensions," Ulman said. "If lawmakers in Annapolis fail to fight against this shift, the progress we have made here will be in serious jeopardy."
After the sour note about state assistance, Ulman went on to conclude his speech by listing all the county has accomplished in the past year.
His mention of Superintendent Sydney Cousin, who is retiring this year, as "the best superintendent in the country" and police officer Nick Bingham and firefighter Josh Angelo, who helped citizens caught in the flood currents from Tropical Storm Lee, as "hometown heroes" drew standing ovations.
Ulman also touted the county's environmental efforts, including the 2,000 solar panels that help power Worthington Elementary School and the county's food scraps recycling pilot program. He announced that the county's fleet of hybrid vehicles has grown with two new, all-electric vehicles that went into service on Thursday.
Another announcement Ulman made is that next month the county will open the first part Blandair Park in Columbia, which will include three synthetic turf fields, a large playground and a picnic area.
After the speech, County Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, said Ulman "didn't really tell us anything new or exciting.
"I think it would have been nice to hear a little bit more about where we stand financially," Fox added.
Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said Ulman "speaks very honestly about the leadership role (Howard County) has in several different areas."
However, she noted she is worried about what he said regarding the possible teacher pension shift.
"I don't think the governor has stopped to think about the ramification it will have on county budgets," Sigaty said.