Howard County Executive Ken Ulman strongly endorsed completion of a plan for central Columbia's redevelopment in a speech before 400 people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week.
The speech also noted how the slumping national economy is hurting county finances, but Ulman said the plan should be finished, even as General Growth Properties, the town's master developer, experiences severe financial problems.
"I am troubled by the false notion that because there are unknowns about the economy and GGP's future, we should put the planning process on hold," he said. "I could not disagree more."
Ulman delivered his third annual State of the County speech to the chamber Wednesday at Turf Valley Hotel and Conference Center.
"Uncertainty about the future only strengthens the case for having a county-approved plan that reflects community consensus for the future of downtown Columbia," he said. "Such a plan will ensure that no matter who ultimately owns land in downtown, any future development will be guided by the community's vision."
The county Planning Board is now reviewing General Growth's 30-year plan for remaking town center into an urban-style environment. The next hearing is scheduled for Thursday, when GGP is to finish presenting its response to county planners' suggestions and public testimony is to begin. After the Planning Board makes recommendations, the plan goes to the County Council for further review and a final vote.
General Growth's vice president and general manager, Greg Hamm, was in the audience and embraced Ulman's remarks.
"We're obviously delighted to have the county executive make such a strong statement," he said.
Ulman's 34-page speech covered each of his administration's major initiatives over the past year. But it is the coming year that is producing the most anxiety.
The county is still doing well, he said, but the national recession might result in no revenue growth for fiscal 2010, which starts July 1. That could force him to cut programs and expenses to keep spending from growing too.
"Over the next 12 months, however, this strength will be tested, perhaps like never before," he said.
Rand Griffin, CEO of Corporate Office Properties Trust, the county's largest office development firm, set the stage in introducing Ulman by saying that nationally, unemployment is likely to hit 8.5 percent by year's end.
Ulman said the county is expecting zero revenue growth for next year because of falling income tax collections and real estate taxes. In response, he has told county department heads to submit two alternative budget requests - one for flat spending, and another showing a 5 percent reduction.
"Although I hope to avoid doing so, making such drastic cuts may be necessary," he said, noting that more state cuts to local government are coming.
Howard officials are used to an average 8.5 percent revenue boost each year, but falling income tax revenues projections promise a decline in that category in fiscal 2010 for only the second time since 1964, he said.