Painting an unrelentingly rosy picture of life at the top of the region's economic heap, new Howard County Executive James N. Robey said yesterday Howard's major problem is managing its success.
Buoyed by the highest per capita income in Maryland, the lowest unemployment rate (2.5 percent), a sharp dip in violent crime and a location that helped attract 27,000 jobs in seven years, Robey told the Chamber of Commerce in a State of the County speech that Howard County is "THE place to live and work in Maryland."
Robey's portrait of Howard underscored the county's enviable position in a region where the two largest jurisdictions, Baltimore and Baltimore County, are struggling with more serious problems ranging from population flight to blighted older communities.
Despite growing traffic congestion, battles over development, worries about a few schools in older neighborhoods and getting entry-level workers, Howard thrives, Robey said at a Columbia luncheon.
"For years, we labored to make Howard County a desirable place to live and work. And now we are being held captive by our own success," he said, referring to the challenges of managing the effects of growth.
That will clearly be his toughest task, he said.
"I just broke from the gate in a four-year distance race that will be filled with challenges and obstacles at every turn," Robey said.
Economically, however, he told a hotel banquet room full of nearly 200 business people, "Who could ask for more? Yes, I feel great today because I'm sitting on the top."
$11.8 million surplus
The county, he said, has a $25 million Rainy Day fund, an $11.8 million surplus and a location between Baltimore and Washington that has made it a magnet for 91 businesses that leased more than 4 million square feet in new space last year alone.
As if to underscore the point, W. R. Grace Co., which has 385 employees at a plant near Columbia, announced yesterday that it would move its corporate headquarters and 40 senior executives to Howard County from Boca Raton, Fla., in a cost-saving move.
Robey credited former Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican who served two terms, with keeping the county in good fiscal shape.
The Democrat and former Howard police chief added that the strong national economy and the county's efforts at working with private businesses helped create all the new jobs in a small county with slightly more than a quarter-million population.
He noted that funding is set for three major highway interchanges to ease traffic, and plans are under way for using the 300-acre former Smith farm in east Columbia, acquired last year with state help.
Even the highest per capita public debt in the state isn't really bad, Robey said, because the county has used that money for schools, roads, public safety and recreational items "that have helped us create a reputation for providing our citizens with a high quality of life."
He said that reducing that debt, however, is one of his top goals.
Also, with a bond rating of AAA, the county can borrow at the lowest possible rates and the surplus can be used for projects, reducing the need for bond sales, he said.
Robey's optimism extended to problems, such as the lack of money for school construction.
Noting that he was leaving the luncheon to go to Annapolis and join the 20 other Maryland subdivisions asking Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the state Board of Public Works for more school construction money for the county's fast-growing system, Robey said Howard "is in the best possible position in years to profit from the state's generosity."
Howard received more than $13 million last year, but is looking for at least $20 million this time, school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said. "It's our turn, especially since the county voted for him [Glendening]."
Before delivering his speech, Robey talked about his new life as boss of county government.
"It's fantastic. I am thoroughly enjoying it. From the first day, it's been everything I expected and more," he said, noting that he got good advice from neighboring County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger in Baltimore County.
"Learn to say 'no' at least 75 percent of the time," he said, or be prepared to lose "hair, time or money."
Robey won high praise from key members of the business community after the speech.
"I believe that Jim Robey has the county's interests in mind more than the next election," said Harry L. "Chip" Lundy, president and chief executive officer of the Williamsburg Group, a friend and backer of Ecker.
Padraic M. Kennedy, the retired 26-year director of the Columbia Association, said Robey "didn't seem like a rookie up there." Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Michael G. Riemer praised the "very smooth" transition from Ecker to Robey as something the business community feels is good.
Hilton Hotel General Manager Mark R. Brown praised Robey's concern for his problems getting enough workers.
The full advance text of Robey's address can be read at www.sunspot.net/news/maryland/sun
Pub Date: 1/28/99