As Route 1 grows, officials ask what they can do to help

For business owners along Howard County's stretch of Route 1, reliable public transportation, workforce training reform and affordable housing options for workers top the wishlist.

That's what about two dozen leaders from companies along the corridor told U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D), Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) and County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty (D) during a roundtable discussion Friday afternoon.

The meeting was held in Jessup at Mobern Lighting, a manufacturer of fluorescent, LED and other lights that has tripled its workforce since 2010.

Mobern Lighting President Bill Stone called affordable housing and transportation a priority for his employees, some of whom commute up to three hours a day.

"We've got to have a way to get people here who can't afford to drive a car," Bob Smith, a principal at commercial real estate firm NAI KLNB, told Cardin, Kittleman and Sigaty.

Most transportation projects benefit heavily from federal funding, Cardin said. He encouraged business owners to support renewing the current federal transportation program, which expires in July.

"Get engaged; don't let us go past July without a transportation bill," he said.

Affordable housing, meanwhile, is under the spotlight in downtown Columbia, where the County Council is considering whether to craft legislation that would require a certain percentage of affordable units in projects moving forward.

Along the Route 1 corridor and elsewhere in the county, new developments are required to offer between 10 and 15 percent of their units at a rate affordable to families who make 80 percent of Howard County's median income of $109,865, or else developers must pay a fee-in-lieu to the county to support affordable housing construction.

Another challenge, mentioned by several business owners, was training new employees. They said they'd like to have more flexibility to hire a worker for a temporary training period before deciding if they would be a good fit and hiring them full time.

Bob Oare, senior vice president of commercial real estate firm DTZ, said businesses "need a much more liberal practice... so they're not penalized" for hiring and training an employee who doesn't end up working out.

Kittleman said the argument "made sense" to him and said he would work making a change.

"You don't want to be penalized because you're giving that person an opportunity," he said.

A final concern was zoning. As more residential development takes places along the Route 1 corridor, which in Howard County travels through the communities of Jessup, Elkridge, Savage and North Laurel, there is less land available for commercial or industrial use.

"Most of our good industrial land that's left got eaten up by townhouses." Smith said. "We've got to stop that. You can't create new jobs if you don't have a place to put them."

Sigaty said zoning could be an "area of discussion" for the future. Like Cardin, she encouraged business owners to speak up.

"I can't disagree with you that decisions made in the past have led to the situation where we are now," she said. When business leaders don't share their point of view at council hearings and worksesssions, "sometimes, in times of discussion, your voices don't get heard," she added.

Kittleman said he understood concerns about preserving industrial land.

"Route 1, if we want to make it the cyber or manufacturing hub of Howard County, we need to have the land resources we can do that with," he said.

He also pointed to a new set of goals for his administration on Route 1.

In April of last year, Former County Executive Ken Ulman (D) and the County Council launched a tax credit program for Route 1 businesses to help with the cost of renovations to their property. Kittleman said he wanted to focus instead on uniting small land parcels along the corridor to create plots large enough for companies to build upon.

"I think the bigger issue for us now is not beautification, but making sure these smaller parcels, we're able to assemble them to be able to make something happen," he said.

Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO Larry Twele said the Route 1 corridor called for a "both/and" approach that focuses both on aesthetics and more logistical considerations.

Speaking after the roundtable, Twele said the "big story" of Route 1 is the growth and diversity of the businesses in the corridor, where some 30 percent of the county's jobs are located.

"We've got folks who are feeding the eastern seaboard and folks who are protecting the borders" via cybersecurity, he said.

As officials look for ways to give Route 1 businesses a boost, the area continues to change.

Already, "it looks completely different from what it did a few years ago," Twele said.

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