Creating Human Services Campus

About a year ago, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced two major projects in his fiscal 2018 capital improvement budget.

One was to establish the Howard County Innovation Center in the county-owned Gateway Building, a move that kick-started a new era for Columbia Gateway Business Park. The news was met with enthusiasm, given the county’s focus on the redevelopment of Downtown Columbia and relative lack thereof in Gateway, which is known for hosting some impressive tenants, as well as its lack of amenities.

The perhaps lesser-discussed part of that news was the plan to create the Howard County Community Resources Campus in nearby Patuxent Woods Business Park, off Snowden River Parkway, to consolidate the county’s human services offerings with entities from the nonprofit sector. It calls for moving four community-service based agencies out of the Gateway Building to the new campus, which will be easily accessible through public transportation, and convenient to routes 95, 32 and 29 from adjacent Broken Land Parkway.

Last year, necessary resources were committed to create the NonProfit Collaborative of Howard County at the new campus to lend greater support to the county’s Department of Community Resources & Services (DCRS), which operates under the Maryland Department of Social Services (DSS); the Department of Housing & Community Development (DHCD); the Office of Human Rights; and the Community Action Council, with the goal of attracting nonprofits with similar missions.

Move-in dates for the county agencies are slated for mid-2018.

All in One

Jackie Scott, director of CRS, called the move “a tremendous opportunity for us, as we can collocate our CRS offices with those of other agencies and nonprofits.”

To Scott, this consolidation is really about time, and how much of it will be saved for virtually all concerned. “We can now help people in real-time,” she said, “since all of these agencies will be in one place. We can provide that warm handoff by walking someone over to a nonprofit or the Department of Social Services, instead of them having to make another appointment and maybe even catch a bus.”
As for providing the more convenient transportation, “the bus route not only comes to us, but is designed is to link all of the services on our campus, so it will heighten access to those areas, also.”

Scott is looking forward to moving out of the Gateway building in the beginning of July, with its Office of Children & Families, where 20 workers are employed at Ridge Road in Elliott City.

Indeed, “We will all be within a stone’s throw from each other so we can collaborate much more easily, and so residents who seek services and need to take public transportation can get wherever they need to be from that one bus stop,” said DHCD Director Kelly Cimino.

“Also, we’re coordinating services, so we don’t want citizens bounced from office to office, even if they’re so close,” said Cimino. “ACS [Association of Community Services] is spearheading how all of the government and nonprofit entities will work together. This will equate to better service, better information sharing and a lot less meetings.”

‘Two Hours’?

Karen Butler, director of the Howard County Department of Social Services (DSS), which is located not in the Gateway Building, but at 7121 Gateway Drive, in Renaissance Business Park, has long had a problem with clients gaining access to her office, and she, too, expressed enthusiasm about coming together on the new campus. Noting that an agreement to make the move was signed on March 16, she said, “We want to be in place by the end of the year, at the latest.” She merely had to mention a few numbers to illustrate why the move is a no-brainer. “We see an average of 1,200–1,400 people per week who need help, and we end up redirecting about 45% of them if they need other services,” she said. “So collocating with some of our frequent partners, like HopeWorks and CRS, is a great thing.”

Then comes the issue of transportation. “It can take a client up to two hours to get here from The Mall in Columbia, which is a 15-minute car ride to our current location,” Butler said.
All told, it just makes sense. “We see this approach as good practice,” she said. “I see it becoming a trend in the state and the country.”
A number of nonprofits are already based at Patuxent Woods. The Association of Community Services (ACS), for instance, moved last year into the NonProfit Collaborative, spurring the project into motion. Joan Driessen, executive director of ACS, said she knew the DSS lease was running out at its Gateway location and is hopeful it “will be in place at the new human services campus by the end of the year.
“The Kennedy Kreiger Institute already had an office here, which was another attraction to this intersection at Snowden River and Broken Land” parkways, Driessen said, adding that, as good as the co-location concept sounds, this is actually the third attempt to make it happen.

“The move to do this started in the 1980s,” she said, with the second try occurring during the Ken Ulman administration. “That was less intensive than the current effort, which began in May 2013.

“This time, we got great support from the county,” she said, “and all of the pieces fell into place,” including getting new sidewalks, bus shelters, bus routes, etc.

ACS, with the 16 nonprofits within its wingspan, has been up, running and seeing clients since last spring, and even has a navigator to help people use Howard County’s Care App so they can “work their way around the campus to ensure their needs are addressed,” she said, “because people are typically dealing with more than one issue while they get back on their feet.”

Good Anchors

Heather Iliff, president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, has seen the approach Howard County is taking work in other places in Maryland, such as Rockville and Easton; in the latter case, it helped make its downtown more vibrant.

Taking the campus approach is “a great way” to better serve the community, because clients get one-stop shopping from the governments, and the nonprofits can share space and collaborate, Iliff said.

“Much of what we do is based around meetings, so having many as you [need to have] in one place makes sense,” she said, “and from the economic development angle, nonprofits serve as good anchor institutions to help boost neighborhoods and local economies.”

Howard County’s efforts also were praised by Katie Edwards, interim executive director of the Nonprofit Centers Network (NCN), in Denver. “We know of just less than 500 such nonprofit centers around North America,” she said, which NCN defines as establishing “at least two nonprofits on shared or adjacent spaces,” with the intent of collaboration to build and leverage organizational strengths.

“About a third of those places are like what’s coming together in Columbia, where you’re seeing a campus set up to make it easier for people who are down on their luck to get services,” Edwards said.

What’s interesting about the Columbia project, she said, “is that local government is showing up in a big way. We see some local governments get involved in these kinds of projects around the country, but not in proactive partnerships on this scale. That’s important, because [that helps eliminate] an overlap of services between the government and nonprofits.”

Gettin’ Happier

The overall effort “is nice to see,” Edwards said, “because of the increased awareness of resources, the increased vibrancy of the nonprofits and how more people will be served,” Edwards said. “Happier staff makes for happier organizations.”

And if that all happiness happens, the Howard County Community Resources Campus will be a great success that could draw favorable attention from other jurisdictions.

“We’re hoping it will be a model for the region and the country,” said Scott. “This is an opportunity for us to show what can be done to make services more accessible and, in doing so, improve thousands upon thousands of lives.”


On the Flip Side

The other side of establishing the new Howard County Community Resource Campus is the large amount of suddenly available space in the 88,000-square-foot Gateway Building. Larry Twele, CEO for the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA), said the move-in process of its Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship (MCE) into that building will be an ongoing effort.

But even though act one is just getting underway, it’s already time to start the second act. “By pulling the agencies together [elsewhere] and opening up that space in our Gateway building,” said Twele, “we can continue to spur the Innovation District and keep working on turning the MCE into a more robust location.”

At the old Bendix building, where it’s currently located, the MCE has been limited to 25,000 square feet to accommodate more than 20 companies, “but when all of the human service agencies move out of [the Gateway] building, we’ll have 50,000 more square feet available, which will allow us to move [the MCE] here and help us accommodate other entities,” he said. “Some may be new and suddenly available to assist our cause, like educational entities and accelerators, as well as co-working space for small entrepreneurs, a demonstration space and room for a new speaker series.

“What it does,” said Twele, “is give us the ability to attract the right stakeholders.”

So far, there is a small amount of vacant space available where the county’s police department and its housing commission moved out that hasn’t been renovated. “However, we were able to offer some of the startups who left the Chesapeake Innovation Center (in Anne Arundel County) last summer some space, so they have a roof over their heads until we start moving forward,” he said, noting that there is also one MCE graduate company there, VitusVet. “They’re an early settler.”

The MCE move-in date is slated for early 2019, and Twele is looking forward to the new possibilities that lay before the HCEDA, having already seen what can be accomplished when multiple services are offered under one roof.

“We’re the only EDA in the state that runs its own incubator and tech council, and Howard Community College is here, too,” he said. “That give us a tremendous advantage by [spurring] attraction and retention. And we’re already talking to various innovators.
“We want the new venture to not only be a big deal for Howard County,” Twele said, “but a big deal for the region.”