Howard County Executive Calvin Ball spoke at the Howard County Chamber’s Business Outlook event Feb. 15 at Turf Valley Resort. With him from the Howard County Chamber are, from left, President/CEO Kristi Simon (Howard County Chamber) and interim President Stacie Hunt. (Howard County Government/Scott Kramer photo)

New investments to support business and agriculture are among the strategies being undertaken to keep the Howard County economy and state of business strong, County Executive Calvin Ball said Thursday.

Speaking at the Howard County Chamber’s annual Business Outlook address at Turf Valley Resort, Ball highlighted the indicators that point to continued economic growth and opportunity. He also announced new funding and programs aimed at improving the workforce pipeline and keeping businesses resilient.

Touching on the master planning process that launched in January, Ball said he envisions the Gateway Innovation District becoming the regional destination for fresh research and ideas and a spark for innovation in the heart of Maryland.

In this fiscal year alone, he said, the county’s Innovation Center in Gateway added 50 firms and now has 41 resident companies.

“We are investing $2 million to build up data centers and allow for businesses both large and small to house their data safely and securely within the cloud, on or off their premises,” Ball said.

Demonstrating its strength, Howard County welcomed 200 new businesses last year and gained nearly 7,000 jobs, factors that helped reduce the county’s unemployment rate from 3.7% in 2016 to a current 1.6%, the lowest in the state. The county also retained its AAA bond rating from all three credit rating agencies.

“Visitor spending grew by 13% in the county,” Ball added, reaching nearly $740 million in 2022 compared to roughly $650 million in 2018.

Route 1

Ball identified the Route 1 Corridor as one of the county’s greatest opportunities to strengthen employment, expand industrial space and grow mixed-use redevelopment.

Howard County renewed its Route 1 Tax Credit Program in 2020, which invests $250,000 annually into businesses along the corridor.

“To date the program has supported 18 renovation projects,” Ball said. “This year we are committing another $250,000 to make this program even more impactful.”

Ball announced his administration will partner with the Howard County Economic Development Authority in advocating for state legislation to establish a Howard County redevelopment entity with bonding authority, something that could further accelerate revitalization along Route 1.

“I am investing $500,000 to jump start our redevelopment efforts,” he said.

On the agriculture side, the County Council is considering legislation to establish a new Office of Agriculture that will centralize all of the support that Howard County provides to its farmers.

“In August we announced a new enhanced agricultural grant pilot program which offered $250,000 in awards to farmers, nonprofits, and organizations that support agriculture,” Ball said.

The winners include Sharp Farms, William Dale Hough, Haybusters, the Howard County Library System, Bowling Green Beef, Little Portion Farm, and the Chesapeake Flower Exchange.

Ellicott City               

Ellicott City continues to rebound from a series of devastating floods, welcoming six new businesses this year and achieving the lowest vacancy rate in three decades.

The historic Ellicott City Circuit Courthouse will begin a multimillion-dollar renovation this summer, on its way to becoming the new Howard County Center for the Arts and the county’s first Asian American and Pacific Islander Cultural Center.

“We are locating our nationally recognized Roving Radish program to the courthouse and constructing a new commercial kitchen there for emerging entrepreneurs to use as they grow their businesses,” Ball said.

Additionally, the county intends to issue a request for proposal this spring targeting a new small area transit service for historic Ellicott City that will connect the historic courthouse, Main Street, and Ellicott City businesses.

“This spring we are relaunching and expanding our floodproofing grants program for businesses and property owners, bringing our total investment to more than $250,000,” Ball said.

Workforce

A $500,000 disparity study currently underway is expected to begin driving an increase in local and minority business investment starting in June. Since 2018, Howard County Government increased its spending with local businesses from $4 million to a total of $32 million last year.

The county has also launched a new interactive small local business directory on its website which will allow businesses to easily register with the county and enable residents to quickly find information on any registered small business.

Building on the county’s commitment of $11 million to support the establishment of a Workforce Development and Skilled Trades Center at Howard Community College, Ball said the Office of Workforce Development partnered with the Howard County Public School System to advance the training of 30 career counselors. A $13 million investment also helped HCPSS’s Applications and Research Laboratory improve on the number of career and technology placements, including apprenticeship opportunities.

The county saw a 70% increase in registered apprenticeships, which rose from 215 in 2018 to 365 in 2022.

“We are investing $60,000 to help Howard Community College expand and grow its cybersecurity apprenticeship program, matching EDA’s funds to create an opportunity for more than 30 registered apprentices,” Ball said.

Moreover, OWD now offers a $5,000 incentive to businesses for every activated or reactivated apprenticeship.

“The post-pandemic era has left us an uncertain global economy, but here in Howard County we are setting a strong foundation for the future,” Ball said. “One that is bigger, bolder and brighter. We are resilient and embracing economic vitality.”