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Economic exclamation point; W. R. Grace & Co.: Corporate move to Columbia underscores area's attractiveness to business.


NEWS THAT W. R. Grace & Co. will move its corporate headquarters to Columbia was an exclamation point to the first state of the county address by Howard County Executive James N. Robey.

The chemical company's move involves only about 40 jobs. But the decision to leave the Sun Belt mecca of Boca Raton, Fla., is strong commentary on Howard County's attractiveness to businesses looking for a home.

Twelve companies made Howard County their corporate headquarters in 1998. The Howard County Economic Development Authority listed 91 new or expanded businesses last year. Those companies leased more than 4 million square feet of space and provided 5,000 jobs.

Mr. Robey last week listed the rewards that come from being a destination site for businesses. Howard County has Maryland's highest per-capita income and its lowest unemployment rate. It is attractive because of its low crime rate, quality schools, convenient location and business-friendly regulations. Mr. Robey reported that the strong national economy has been very good for the county.

Howard ended last fiscal year with a $24 million surplus, about half of it unanticipated. That can be used for one-time purchases, which will reduce the need to sell bonds to finance capital projects.

One dark cloud in Howard's economic forecast is its per-capita debt, the highest in Maryland -- $1,680 for each of its 238,000 residents. Mr. Robey justified the county's $400 million debt as having been incurred to pay for needed schools, libraries, fire and police stations. But he pledged to reduce the debt and must be held to the promise. That burden could stifle the county if the economy turns sour.

It's hard to think about that possibility during boom times. But no one can predict the future. The county must be adequately prepared for every fiscal possibility.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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