It has been just over two years since the Howard County chapter of Habitat for Humanity finished its first house, on Harriet Tubman Lane in Columbia, but the group's groundbreaking Friday in Jessup for two more houses showed how much things have changed for the faith-based group.
The event was a virtual extravaganza of political, business and community support under a large white party tent, complete with celebratory T-shirts on every folding chair and fruit and bagels on a side table. Chamber of Commerce volunteers had cleared the unused lot of undergrowth, some trees, vines and lots of poison ivy.
John Bucksbaum, chief executive officer of General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based firm that bought the Rouse Co., flew in Friday morning just for the event, which took place in a small residential community on Donald Avenue tucked behind the Red Roof Inn on U.S. 1 in Jessup.
County Executive Ken Ulman, council Chairman Calvin Ball and Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, all Democrats, participated, along with Del. Guy Guzzone, a former two-term Democratic councilman.
Bucksbaum said General Growth has created a national partnership with Habitat, giving employees four days off a year to volunteer, donating building materials and furnishings from the company's 200 shopping malls, and helping to publicize Habitat's efforts.
"It's a breath of fresh air. We have momentum," said George Hunter III, Habitat's board chairman. Local officials "took a matter of weeks" to approve the plans for the two five-bedroom, split-level homes that the group hopes to build side by side by Labor Day, Hunter said. "The first house took years."
David Roura, Habitat's executive director, thanked county officials for an $80,000 housing loan, the Columbia Foundation for a $10,000 grant and a $50,000 low-interest loan, Howard Bank for a $130,000 loan and Citizens National Bank for a $10,000 contribution.
Habitat is looking for a demolition contractor willing to take down free of charge the abandoned two-story stucco house that sits on the quarter-acre lot. After the ceremonial groundbreaking Friday, the volunteers worked at cleaning out the house and grounds.
Jim Voltz, Habitat's building coordinator , said the group is also trying to find contractors willing to donate materials for the homes, as well provide some skilled construction workers.
Roura said religious faith plays a large role in the housing group's efforts, and that he believes needed help will come, along with enough donations to pay off the loans. A 5K walk/run is scheduled for Sept. 15 to raise more money. Habitat has its next project identified - one of the four houses in a development planned for Lennox Park, off Dorsey Road.
The two Jessup houses will not only provide good homes for deserving people, Roura said, but will also help the adjacent community by replacing the eyesore of a long-abandoned home.
Guzzone noted that some may wonder what is so significant about just two new homes in a large county.
"It's two families. Every family matters," he told the crowd.
Through all the hoopla and picture-taking, four of the nine-member Cortes family, who have been waiting two years to help build. and then live in, the first house, watched, and occasionally participated.
Jose Cortes, 58, is a carpenter. He and his wife, Maria Esther, 54, six of their children and their 3-year granddaughter will live in one house. They now live in Columbia.
With Roura acting as an interpreter, Maria Esther Cortes said the family has "great joy and gratitude," and is "very excited" at the prospect of getting a new home.
Habitat will hold the mortgage on the homes it builds and plans to repurchase them for other families when the original buyers eventually move. Roura said the group's selection committee looks at work and credit history and other factors in choosing a family to help.
The second family for the Donald Avenue houses has not been chosen.
Howard County has done lots of planning for possible terrorism-related emergencies, but security at the county's main office complex in Ellicott City has been neglected - until now.
People seeking entrance to the George Howard Building, or the nearby Ligon or Carroll office buildings in the county's Court House Drive complex, now must traverse a mild security gantlet. The latter two buildings have locked entry doors, and to gain access, visitors must call inside on lobby phones. At the George Howard Building, private security guards at the front doors ask for picture identification and issue visitors badges. A rear entrance to the building is now locked, accessible to employees only. All the premises are under video surveillance.
Upstairs, the reception desk at County Executive Ken Ulman's third-floor office suite has been moved outside the old wooden swinging doors, which are equipped with new security locks. A county police officer, who also drives Ulman to many appointments in an unmarked county police car, is stationed at the reception desk when the executive is in the office. The security upgrades to the buildings will cost about $100,000, according to Ulman spokesman Kevin Enright.
Ulman said security is one reason he has a police driver, though he often drives himself to appearances using his county-owned hybrid vehicle.
If there is an emergency, having a police driver and car can be important, partly because of the communications gear on board, Ulman said.
Ulman said all the changes grew from a security study commissioned by former County Executive James N. Robey.
"We're one of the only seats of government that [didn't] have security measures," Ulman said. Before the changes, county employees occasionally had been confronted with disgruntled residents or former workers who wandered through the county buildings. At night, the custodial staff is alone in the buildings.
"We've had people who have refused to leave despite displaying inappropriate behavior," Ulman said. He's heard no complaints about the new arrangements, he added.
The County Council is watching the situation, said Ball, the chairman and an east Columbia Democrat. The security guards at the George Howard Building's front doors help protect the council too, he said.