If Columbia's proposed downtown redevelopment is completed, Howard County stands to gain an average of $6.9 million to $13.9 million in new net revenues each year, according to a detailed county government analysis of the financial impact presented to the County Council Monday night.
But Jeff Bronow, the county's senior research planner, told council members his studies are intended more as a guide than as a concrete prediction.
"This is not a budget predictor," he said. "It's a look at trends and analysis." Bronow said his studies are "supposed to answer questions, but also raise them."
The presentation came after a council legislative session in which two bills were introduced to create the legal framework for the much-debated General Growth Properties 30-year plan to remake central Columbia into a more urban downtown. That plan calls for large new public spaces and amenities, 5,500 more apartments and condominiums, 4.3 million square feet of new offices and 1.25 million square feet of retail space.
One bill would change the county's General Plan, which is a guide to future development, while the other would change zoning language in the law to allow the project to go through. Several GGP officials and consultants watched from the audience.
The council has scheduled an unusual Saturday hearing on the two measures for Nov. 14 at 9 a.m. at school board headquarters, and Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said members would hear from everyone who wanted to speak, even if it required a second session.
The fiscal impact study presented Monday night follows a consultant's economic development study presented last month that said the completed project could generate $300 million in added state and local revenues annually, 30,000 new jobs, and have a $4.8 billion annual impact on the economy.
Bronow said he used several sets of assumptions on factors such as affordable housing and the number of new schoolchildren the housing might bring, the value of the new structures and the incomes of the new residents to determine the range of possible outcomes. His estimates were generally conservative, he said, to keep the results as realistic as possible.
But all of them left the county seeing a profit from the GGP project, despite possible costs of $80 million for two rebuilt interchanges along U.S. 29, and an average of $5.3 million per year in capital costs.
He said the various suggestions for different percentages of lower-than-market-rate housing would not change the outcomes much, though the total number of new students in grades K-12 at the end of the three decades could vary from about 460 to 920, which would affect the county's bottom line.
"High density produces a low yield of students," he said, noting, however, that "the problem is this is a 30-year project and a lot of things could change." Bronow said he calculated current costs per person in making his estimates - like the $9,328 spent on each county schoolchild - and used that figure to calculate the projections. Other county agencies and consultants helped, he said.
Sigaty and other council members said they'd be proposing changes to the assumptions as they study the legislation, and Bronow said he'd work with them.
Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, wondered aloud about some of the uncertainties.
"What happens if it takes longer, or takes 25 years?" Bronow said fits and starts in development are common, but he tried to allow for that by calculating averages over 10, 20 and 30 years.
Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said the county often pays for road projects with local funds and gets state contributions years later, and Bronow said he can change the assumptions to see how different scenarios would play out over time.
"The county won't lose money on this, but it's not a very big margin, is it?" Watson asked.
After the session, Sigaty asked if Brownow had prepared an estimate of the impact of not doing the downtown project. He had not, he said.
Jud Malone, a supporter of GGP's vision for the town center, asked if Bronow had another version of the study gauging the impact if future development is dispersed instead of being concentrated downtown. "What if it went to Gateway, or to suburbia?" Malone asked. Bronow said he had no model for that, either.
In other action:
* The council approved a bill forgiving property taxes for any public safety worker totally disabled on the job, including volunteer firefighters and correctional officers, and their surviving spouses. The bill was amended, however, to cover only those who both work and live in Howard, or in a county that offers the same benefit to its employees who live in Howard County. Right now, that's just Anne Arundel County.
* The council approved another measure that directs about $31 million in federal stimulus money to projects in the U.S. 1 corridor east of Interstate 95, the county's priority redevelopment area.