With all the "moving pieces" involved in the downtown Columbia redevelopment process, County Executive Ken Ulman believed the county needed a point person for coordinating the government's efforts.
"Getting downtown Columbia revitalization right is a priority of mine, and I knew that once we got to the point of seeing plans come in that we really needed somebody full time or somebody focused and dedicated on monitoring and managing this process," Ulman said.
That's why his administration created a position called director of downtown redevelopment and hired Mark Thompson, a 50-year-old Columbia resident who started Feb. 6. He is a contingent employee, meaning he is not entitled to benefits, earning $75 an hour (equivalent to $156,000 a year at 40 hours a week).
"We've got a number of things going on with downtown," Thompson said. "I'm just very excited to have the opportunity to get to play a role in the implementation of it."
Thompson, who earned a master's degree in business administration and a master's degree in regional planning from the University of North Carolina, moved to Columbia in 1994 and started working for Rylan Homes, a home building company.
A few years later, he went to work for the Rouse Company, which later was acquired by General Growth Properties. During his 11-year tenure with the Rouse Co./GGP, Thompson served as its director of research, working on projects the company was heading across the country. The last position he held with GGP was vice president of land sales, in which he oversaw commercial and residential land sales for the company's master planned communities in Maryland, including Columbia.
After his time with GGP, Thompson decided to start his own commercial real estate brokerage and advisory firm called Real InSite LLC. During the three years he ran Real InSite, Thompson worked on a variety of land sales and retail leasing transactions and took on consulting assignments for major developers or investment firms.
The projects he was involved with ranged from residential home building to retail and office development. The variety, Thompson said, "gives me a really broad perspective that's especially relevant for this type of project where you're mixing uses."
Having worked for a major company and owned his own business, he said he was excited by the opportunity to get to work in the public sector.
"I've always been fascinated with cities, how they grow and develop," Thompson said. "That part of the real estate business ... is one where the public sector plays a very important role in the process."
The public sector — in this case Howard County government — is very involved in the downtown Columbia redevelopment. And to Thompson, that was a major selling point of the job.
"Its scope and scale and complexity is attractive to me," he said. "Having the opportunity to influence that process, to bring the plan to life so to speak, is a tremendous career opportunity."
'Perfect person to help us'
Ulman said Thompson's extensive background and familiarity with Columbia are what made him the ideal candidate for the job.
"He combines a planning background with practical experience in complex real estate transactions, knows the market and is the perfect person to help us ensure the vibrant visionary downtown that the County Council passed," Ulman said.
Thompson will be responsible for overseeing that the meticulous 16-point plan the council passed for downtown Columbia development is followed. Throughout the process, a lot of factors will come into consideration, such as neighborhood guidelines, storm water requirements, transit connections, etc.
"This is such a big project with so many different facets in it," Ulman said. "There's just so many requirements that the master developer has to satisfy that are different than any other development in the country."
The key for Thompson, Ulman explained, is to make sure everyone's on the same page. For example, he said he'll need to ensure that plans from the Columbia Association for Symphony Woods and the Lakefront work together with plans from GGP for the mall.
Thompson explained what he sees as the challenges of the job: "Keeping focus and balance on the various different aspects of the plan, given a changing and challenging market environment, and bringing together all of those parties, in many cases with different interests, to ensure we can effectively make the plan happen."
In his first few weeks on the job, Thompson said he already has his hands in various projects. He said he's been working on legislation to create the downtown community partnership, plans for the bike pedestrian path the county and developer will build and details about how the housing fund will be set up.
In addition to overseeing the county's work on downtown development, Thompson will be helping manage the Revenue Authority, a quasi-government agency that was formed in 2006 to finance or operate cultural, recreational and parking facilities (excluding golf courses).
The authority explored project ideas in its early years, but lately it has been largely inactive, only holding a monthly conference call with members to fulfill its monthly meeting requirement. Thompson will aid the authority as it looks for self-sustaining, revenue-generating project opportunities.
"I think it's a good fit because some of those opportunities may be downtown," Ulman said.
Overall, Thompson said he is grateful to be working in the community that has been home to him, his wife and their two children.
"I've lived and worked here in Columbia, so it's something I care deeply about," Thompson said. "I think downtown Columbia has tremendous assets but it also has tremendous opportunities to be better."