James W. Rouse, Columbia's developer and founder of a national affordable housing foundation, criticized the growing public sentiment for getting tougher on crime as a simplistic approach to complex problems.
"This country is going right straight downhill," Mr. Rouse told about 200 people Tuesday at the Equal Business Opportunity Expo at the Turf Valley Hotel & Country Club in Ellicott City, citing increases in poverty, joblessness, homelessness and health care needs.
He expressed dismay at the outcry to build more prisons to handle a burgeoning inmate population, scoffing at what he called potentially the nation's "biggest construction program."
"We can't keep up," said the 80-year-old founder of the Enterprise Foundation and of the unincorporated city of Columbia, which has emphasized racial diversity and tolerance from its outset in 1967. "We've got to address the cause.
"This beat-'em-up answer to crime is heathen, yet provocative. We've got to find out where our troubles are, and they're deep, very deep. There's a pervasive state of mind in the United States that nothing can be done about it -- it's too big, too costly, it's gone on too long."
The Columbia-based Enterprise Foundation, started in 1982 to help produce affordable housing nationwide and raise families from poverty, is seeking to demonstrate that urban problems are correctable, pointing to its 4-year-old revitalization project in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore as an example, Mr. Rouse said.
With the involvement of other agencies and Sandtown residents, Mr. Rouse said, the foundation has developed ways to transform the low-income community's "dysfunctional systems" -- dilapidated housing, struggling schools, high unemployment, rampant crime and drug problems and a lack of health care, child care and other human services.
"In five years, we have reason to believe that a child will wake up in a house that's physically fit and walk safe streets to a school that will accept the child under the principle that every child is capable of learning and wants to learn," he said.
"You'll see the transformation of a neighborhood into a good place for a poor family to live. When that happens, America will be on the move to change the dreadful conditions in this country."
The exhibition was the first for minority- and female-owned businesses sponsored by the Howard County Economic Development Authority. Organizers said the focus was to help smaller, minority-owned businesses form partnerships with larger businesses.
"Opportunities like this help break barriers," said Malynda H. Madzel, president of Custom Telemarketing Services and a member of the county Equal Business Opportunity Committee.
Ms. Madzel, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, and Avon J. Evans, expo organizer, said minority- and female-owned small businesses can experience difficulty obtaining work because many haven't been involved in traditional business settings such as country clubs or business organizations.
"I think to some degree our diverse business community has been overlooked -- not intentionally, but it's not part of the mainstream," said Mr. Evans, chief executive of a business management consulting firm.
Mr. Evans said Howard County has a good atmosphere for minority-owned businesses.
Mr. Rouse said the county is a "wonderful, open community.
"No one ever came to us in Howard County and said we made a mistake" in promoting a racially diverse Columbia, Mr. Rouse said. "That's a remarkable credit."