Staying afloat in tough economic times


The past year has been tough for businesses nationally, and Howard County businesses have struggled, too, yet they have managed to make some gains, according to reports from the major business pulse-keepers in the county.

The county's Economic Development Authority and Tourism Council delivered annual reports to stockholders and board members last week, painting a picture for county businesses of brighter skies ahead.

Tourism officials said that by focusing on visitors who live nearby to support hometown tourism, their office has laid the groundwork for a better year that is already beginning.

And although the largest new lease of office space in the county was less than 50,000 square feet, state statistics show that the county was a leader in Maryland in business growth and in average wage.

"The national economy has been bad, we have been in a recession, yet Howard County has had a pretty darn good year," said Richard W. Story, the authority's executive director.

Unemployment in Howard steadily increased during the past year, with caseloads at the county's employment office quadrupling. The rate peaked at 3.4 percent in April, continuing a trend that began a year earlier when the rate was 2.0 percent, according to statistics from the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Since April, the county jobless rate has steadily declined, statistics show. It stood at 3.0 percent in July, the latest month for which figures were available.

In the past year, the county has added 4,357 jobs, contributing more than 40 percent of net new jobs in the Baltimore region and 23 percent in the state, according to the authority.

The authority also handed out its Economic Development Awards to local businesses during the ceremony. A2Z Inc. was named Small Business of the Year; CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, Large Business of the Year; and Comcast Cable Communications Inc., Regional Business of the Year. Martek Biosciences Corp. was honored for its contributions in technology, and the CEO Club for its work as an area angel fund.

Tourism was greatly affected by last year's terrorist attacks, but tourism officials say they are seeing a turnaround. In the weeks after the attacks, Executive Director Melissa Arnold estimated the county's six largest attractions alone lost $1.4 million in revenue from cancellations.

Heritage tours, which the Tourism Council sponsors and are a part of the county's third-grade curriculum, also saw a large number of cancellations. The agency saw 542 students attend the tour for the entire fiscal year, according to Assistant Director Karen Knight.

The Tourism Council also did not grow internally, Knight said, losing about as many business partners as it gained.

Nationally, tourism suffered not so much from a lack of travelers as their lack of spending, said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade organization. She said the terrorist attacks cost the industry 300,000 jobs in the ensuing three months alone, and $36 billion for the year. A year later, the industry has not recovered, she said.

"Domestic spending is expected to drop again by $2 billion this year," Keefe said. "We're seeing shorter, cheaper trips. Travel volume is increasing slightly, but people are taking more economical vacations. There's more interest in camping hiking, seeing small-town America."

That's where Howard's Tourism Council has been hoping to generate interest.

Two months after the attacks, the council created a Heritage Tourism month for which several businesses donated a portion of their profits to a relief fund for the families of the victims of the attacks. The group raised $11,000. Part of the goal was to increase local tourism. The council published a new visitors guide and increased circulation from 70,000 to 250,000. It also has been working to develop an agri-tourism program.

Heritage tour figures are up this year - more than 1,000 students are signed up for tours between this month and November alone - and the Tourism Council's board of directors is beginning an informational series targeting business owners looking at specific industries within tourism, which is aimed at increasing sponsorship for the organization. Coca-Cola has joined the Tourism Council as a sponsor, Knight said.

"We do promotional partnerships all the time, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle," Knight said. "This is the board's effort to bring in new partners. They're asking everybody in that particular area of tourism and also reaching outside the partnership, saying come on and join us."

The series will begin next month, focusing on restaurants and catering businesses.

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