Business group scores 'coup' in keynote speech

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Columbia Business Exchange went looking for a keynote speaker for its "State of Columbia Address," it got turned down twice.

First, the Rouse Co. said no. Then, General Growth Properties, which bought Rouse in November, declined.

"I don't blame them," said David Hepple, president of the business group. "There was a lot of controversy about the sale and the different developments going on right now. So they declined."

And that is how Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele came to the Columbia Hilton yesterday and became the first person in recent memory not connected to the planned community to give the keynote address.

"It's kind of a coup for us," Hepple said. "It's not every day that the lieutenant governor comes to speak to you."

Steele traded quips and shook hands with local business leaders before giving an address that was partly an appeal to improve Maryland's education, partly a tribute to small business owners and partly a plug for the administration.

"You men and women take risks every day, adding value to our state economy, creating jobs for the people in our state," he said. "You are part of this administration's team."

The Columbia Business Exchange, a group created in 1974 that consists mostly of small business owners, has sponsored the event for more than a decade, organizers said.

Over the years, the annual event has reflected the state of Columbia as much by its selection of speakers as by the speeches themselves.

Early on, the event almost always featured executives from the Rouse Co., which built Columbia. In later years -- as the town began to stand on its own -- presidents from the Columbia Association were also invited to speak.

And this year's selection reflects the crossroads Columbia faces now that the company that built the town no longer exists.

"This year is kind of an anomaly," Hepple said.

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