Columbia/Ellicott City ranked No. 2 best small city

Blessed with a great location, an educated populace and relative prosperity, the combined Columbia and Ellicott City area is the nation's second-best small city to live in, according to Money magazine.

The news was a boost for recession-weary residents Monday, from an ebullient Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and a happy Trent Kittleman, his Republican rival in this year's election, to folks who make their homes in the two communities.

The magazine pointed out the communities' "excellent schools," relatively low unemployment and foreclosure rates, and the thousands of new federal jobs headed to nearby Fort Meade and the National Security Agency. It also noted Ellicott City's "grand homes" and "lovely 18th-century downtown" and Columbia's "wide range of housing, tons of parkland and a major music venue, plus racial diversity and a location between Baltimore and Washington."

Ellicott City/Columbia was ranked No. 8 on the list two years ago.

Eden Prairie, Minn., was chosen No. 1 this year, and Ulman said he dashed off a congratulatory e-mail to his counterpart there.

Sage Policy Group economist Anirban Basu declared it "great news" in these economic times.

"This represents an enormous marketing win for the community," Basu said, which could resonate for years as highly paid government and government contract workers come into the area, and related businesses decide where to locate. "It's an important additional source of credibility to anyone marketing these communities."

Mary Catherine Cochran, an Ellicott City resident who grew up in Howard County and is raising her children there, said her ride to work in Columbia is confirmation of the No. 2 ranking to her.

"I drive by the little lambs on the Clark Farm and wind through Columbia to a hospital owned by Johns Hopkins. What's not to like?" she said. "There's a nice mix of historic structures and contemporary buildings."

"I think it's wonderful, and we deserve it," said Suzanne Waller, co-vice chair of the board of directors of the Columbia Association, the homeowners' group that operates recreational facilities and manages 3,500 acres of open space in the town planned by James Rouse more than 40 years ago.

"People here are very pro-excellence and it isn't so that we'll win awards," she said. "It's because that's what we care about."

"We love it here," said Gail Broida, who has lived in Columbia for decades and six years ago moved to a new condominium building on Lake Kittamaqundi, one of Columbia's three lakes. She enjoys classical music performances at nearby Howard Community College, she said, and in the early years listened to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra playing at Merriweather Post Pavilion each summer. "I think it's fabulous," she said about the magazine ranking.

Grace Kubofcik, an Ellicott City resident since 1969, said the magazine notice is a reaffirmation "that where we've chosen to live, work and play is a pretty neat place." It was also a very different place when she and her husband bought a new house, she said. "It was considered a very rural jurisdiction" at that time, she said.

Columbia and Ellicott City have grown to a combined 155,000-person area that represents more than half the county's population. Columbia is about to embark on a new growth phase with a 30-year plan to intensify development in the town center. Meanwhile Ellicott City, which began as an 18th-century mill settlement on the Patapsco River, is now one of the most popular destinations for families buying homes in the county.

"It's a proud day for me," said Ulman, a Democrat, who often recites the mantra of good schools, low crime, fine libraries, parks and the public's commitment to keep things that way. "This is a wonderful honor and the credit goes to you!" Ulman told residents in a public e-mail.

"I think it's fantastic," agreed Kittleman, the Republican candidate for county executive opposing Ulman.

"Howard County is the best place to live in the country," Kittleman said, noting the population's high-education level and the lower-than-average unemployment. "We're suffering a little less," she added. "I think it's because of the people who live here, rather than the government."

The only other cities in the state that made the Top 100 are in Montgomery County: Gaithersburg (No. 25) and Rockville (31).

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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