The last Strategic Plan adopted by the Howard County Economic Development Authority in 2017 was supposed to carry the organization through this year.
Unfortunately, said Larry Twele, HCEDA’s outgoing CEO, the pandemic prevented the implementation of a lot of targeted considerations, forcing a reevaluation of where things now stand and the road ahead.
“We asked Anirban Basu to give us a new three-year plan on a smaller time horizon, because the world has changed a lot and continues to change,” Twele said.
Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, presented some preliminary recommendations to community stakeholders in June as part of a special event focused on The Future of Howard County’s Economy, held at the Merriweather Lakehouse. His draft plan is expected to be finalized and released in the coming weeks.
Although much of the former plan is still viable, Basu said it could benefit from tweaks informed by changes that occurred during the past three years and the current economic climate.
Since 2017, HCEDA launched its Maryland Innovation Center and began to focus on growing the local economy through local innovation and small business support.
“Over the past five years we worked on more than 200 projects that helped create more than 5,000 jobs, and we made a capital investment of almost $9 million that impacted more than 4.5 million square feet,” Twele said.
Additionally, HCEDA’s loan fund has approved more than 100 loans since inception in 2014, amounting to more than $18 million in management that has helped create nearly 1,000 jobs and retain more than 1,000 jobs in the county.
In fact, Basu said, job creation seems to be up everywhere, coupled with low unemployment, which is creating a strange dynamic.
“[Job] loss was so sharp at the earliest phase of the pandemic that we’re not fully recovered … and complete recovery is difficult if you can’t find people who are able to be hired,” he said. “We have a scarcity in workforce availability, that’s one of the issues.”
According to Basu, the five key strategies from HCEDA’s last Strategic Plan are still more or less attuned with needs that should be addressed: target robust business retention efforts, cultivate business attraction opportunities, unleash the potential of innovation, prioritize research and messaging, and dedicate resources for special projects.
Where Basu differs is in his suggestion that HCEDA place more emphasis on retention and less on business attraction.
“Based on research we do not find it compelling to go out and recruit businesses from other communities, it typically does not pay off,” Basu said. “If a firm has an ongoing locational decision, that’s different.”
He’s also recommending that HCEDA do more to capture and retain the innovators and entrepreneurs who get their start in local learning institutions and leave the state after graduation or as part of their startup’s growing process.
“Howard County has a great story to tell,” he said. “Talk to them. Help them find patent attorneys or venture capitalists and other seed funders, try to create an ecosystem.”
Given that HCEDA understands the needs and desires of employers, “there is an opportunity for advocacy to help inform the shaping of the built environment,” he added. “We’re not suggesting HCEDA go into real estate development, but … provide resources. Developers love vision and capital.”
Developing ideas for adaptive reuse of vacant commercial property is also among his recommendations, as is aligning HCEDA’s activities with the Howard County General Plan.
Capitalizing on opportunity
Ahead of a rousing closing speech from Michael Lombardi, a former NFL executive and media analyst, a panel of local business and education leaders provided their own views on key opportunities for Howard County’s economic future and ways in which HCEDA could be involved.
Brian Dykstra, Cyber Advisory director for Surefire Cyber, recommended continued support for the tech community and startups that spin off from Fort Meade and NSA.
“We’ve been talking about data centers for 10 years … and one of the things that prevent them from happening in Maryland is the cost of power,” he said. “One data center could drive an amazing amount of jobs and job potential.”
The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will enable Maryland students to receive a free associate degree from state Community Colleges, said Daria Willis, president of Howard Community College, with school districts and colleges splitting the cost.
“Once we get our Training Center built we’ll be able to articulate our programs into our Jump Start and other enrollment opportunities,” she said. “We have 3,000 students who are part of that program, it’s my goal to double that number in five years.”
“It’s up to economic development to turn the volume to 11 on outreach and making everybody aware of the opportunities we have here,” said Christopher Bennett, executive vice president and principal with MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services. “It’s going to become a much more challenging environment in the future, the onus is on all of us.”
HCEDA Caption: From left, Larry Twele (HCEDA), Anirban Basu (Sage Policy Group), Michael Lombardi (former NFL executive and media analyst), and Chris Moyer (HCEDA) participated in a June program focused on The Future of Howard County’s Economy. (Photo: George Berkheimer)