Howard County's top executive Thursday morning cautioned business leaders against relying too heavily on federal contracts and said Columbia's Gateway Innovation District can be a magnet for new companies.
County Executive Allan Kittleman, speaking at a first-ever business forum with county executives from neighboring Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, also called for the region to make larger strides in improving transportation modes as more workers look for alternative ways to get to their jobs.
As home to a growing number of technology firms, Kittleman said Howard's companies have to find a balance between private-sector and government work.
"We've gotta be careful not to be too much in that basket," Kittleman said of government contracts. "And I think that [Economic Development Authority CEO] Larry Twele and other folks in our administration have been working hard to bring in the Innovation District to Gateway as a way that we can help folks in the cyber world, which is growing by leaps and bounds all the time, and if we can figure out ways in which they can work more commercial and not just with federal, I think that's a big deal."
A major cybersecurity firm, Tenable, announced last year it would be locating its headquarters in a business campus being developed in downtown Columbia and expects to hire hundreds of workers in coming years, a move that economic development promoters say will enhance the region's reputation as a cybersecurity research-and-development center based, in part, on its proximity to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.
The forum was hosted by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce in downtown Columbia, the area lauded as the future economic anchor of the county.
Nearly 200 people listened as Kittleman, Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh exchanged ideas.
Montgomery County's bid to lure tech mammoth Amazon's second headquarters dominated the conversation.
All three executives noted the economic boom Amazon could bring to the region, noting that the headquarters would draw its workforce from all three jurisdictions. In its own unsuccessful bid to Amazon, Howard County heavily played up its highly educated workforce, with 30 percent of residents holding a graduate degree.
"For several decades now the greater Baltimore region, central Maryland in general, has been experiencing an out-migration of corporate headquarters," Schuh said. "And a lot has changed now. We are in a much better position to attract employers to this region than we have been in a long, long time. And the symbolic value of having Amazon select Maryland and Montgomery County, our region, will have repercussions for many many years to come."
In an election year, chamber member Ellen Coren asked the executives how local and state official turnover could affect Montgomery's chances to win the bid. Leggett, a Democrat, is not seeking a fourth term. Kittleman, a Republican, is running for re-election and will likely face Democratic Councilman Calvin Ball in November. The Republican Schuh will face Democrat Steuart Pittman in November.
Gov. Larry Hogan, who is also seeking re-election, helped craft an $8.5 billion incentive package, the largest publicly known incentive offer, to persuade Amazon to settle its headquarters and the 50,000 high-paying jobs it would bring, in Montgomery County.
When Amazon representatives visited Montgomery County, Leggett said they asked about leadership continuity.
While he said he has confidence the county and state's next leaders would be equally in favor of the project, to help ensure a smooth process for Amazon should it choose Montgomery County, Leggett earlier this month proposed a new zoning process to the Montgomery County Council that would allow an expedited development review.
"They wanted to be assured that the leadership in transition would in fact be as supportive," Leggett said. "When you're making a decision that would involve that number of jobs and would involve so many people and you have transition, I think it would be irresponsible for them not ask about transition."
As part of moving the region successfully into the future, the three executives also discussed the need to improve each county's transportation infrastructure, to allow for easier commuting and more public transit options.
Kittleman highlighted the Central Maryland Transit Development Plan, which is awaiting endorsement by the County Council. The plan aims to upgrade the public transit system in Howard, Anne Arundel and parts of Prince George's counties. He said the improvements are necessary to shorten bus service wait times and to create more direct routes throughout the county, particularly along Route 1 and around Columbia.
As more people look for alternatives to driving to work, Kittleman said there need to be more pedestrian and bike paths throughout the county. He highlighted his recently announced BikeHoward Express plan that will add 48 miles of improved bike infrastructure.
"We need to have a way for people to walk and bike to work, I know a lot of people want to do that and when we talk about these new millennials, I bet a lot of these people at Amazon, they all want to bike everywhere, that's what I hear, and so we need to figure out how we can do that better," Kittleman said. "We've got to make these [bus] routes a little more attractive and we'll see if we can get them used more often and I think that'll be a better thing for Howard County."