U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) met with approximately 40 Howard County government officials and local business leaders in June to discuss opportunity tied to the Route 1 Corridor.
Held at Mobern Lighting Co.’s new headquarters facility in Jessup, the roundtable discussion sought input on ideas to promote and sustain revitalization and job growth in the Corridor.
The visit to Mobern was the latest stop of Cardin’s “Made in MD” jobs tour, which highlights the diversity of Maryland products and the Marylanders who make them. The choice of location was also symbolic: A designer and manufacturer of energy-efficient lighting solutions, Mobern has doubled its workforce and sales during the last three years.
“Creativity and dedication are in good supply at Mobern Lighting and other businesses in the Route 1 Corridor,” said Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee. “This area has made solid progress in promoting its existing businesses and drawing new ones to the community.”
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman recognized the Corridor as a major economic powerhouse. “Route 1 is a little less than 11 miles long in Howard County,” he said. “It contains 8% of our land [area] and 30% of the jobs, and we want to make sure we can continue to expand that.”
Howard County Council Chairperson Mary Kay Sigaty (D-Dist. 4) said the council recognizes Route 1 as the area in the county where business has traditionally gone. “It was a major focus of discussion when we did the last round of rezoning and the General Plan,” she said. “We need to make sure we are doing what we need to do to ensure business and increase the opportunities for business here.”
Bob Smith, managing principal for the NAI/KNLB commercial real estate brokerage in Ellicott City, identified two areas that need improvement.
“You’ve got to have a way to get people here who can’t afford to drive a car,” he said. “I have clients who literally have [employees] spend three hours to get to work.”
Smith also urged the council to conserve or increase industrially zoned land. “Most of our good industrial ground that’s left got eaten up by townhouses,” he said. “We’ve got to stop that, there’s nothing left. You can’t create new jobs if you don’t have a place to put them.”
Sigaty acknowledged that the county’s GE industrial site will be an area for future discussion and advised those active in the commercial real estate sector to be more involved in those discussions. “Oftentimes … your voices are not well heard,” she said.
Cardin said the Corridor has always been a challenge, but also an opportunity.
“The county has been working to make it more consistent with the [its] way of life,” he said. “We’re working on local transportation funds … and some transportation alternative programs, all part of our strategy to make what has happened here in Howard County a national model.”
He cautioned, however, that federal Highway Trust Fund revenues are roughly $100 billion short of fully funding the next iteration of a six-year transportation bill. “If we adjust for inflation, we’re about $200 billion short,” he said.
Part of the solution, Cardin said, could come from revising an international tax system that makes little sense.
“Business decisions are being made by companies [overseas] not bringing money back to America because of high tax rates,” he said. “There’s a bipartisan solution, let companies bring the money back, or tax them … at a lower rate and move toward a territorial business tax … and use modifications that will be favorable to business to bring in several hundred billions of dollars of revenue over the next 10 years.”
Bob Oare, senior vice president of DTZ Holdings, a commercial real estate firm in Baltimore, said his clients would like to avoid being penalized for the risk they take on hiring and training new employees.
“With the current employment setup, they are stuck with going through the whole unemployment process of a full-time employee,” he said. “What they would like to see is a much more liberal policy … like an intern or temporary employee so they can see in 60, 90, 120 days if [a new hire] is going to work out.”
Segmented zoning also poses a problem, he said. “I don’t know if the county can do this, but I would create New Town zoning and set up a committee of businesspeople and county residents to approve what goes in there.”
Richard Fields, an NAI/KNLB associate, suggested a complete redesign of the Route 1 roadway to bury above-ground power lines and incorporate an all-turns system that could mitigate danger to workers, truckers, shoppers and residents.
“Predictability and the timeline in the [permitting] process are important,” he added. “It’s hard for national companies coming here facing an 18-to-24–month [development approval and permitting] process when you’re competing with other states for jobs.”
IEC-Chesapeake Executive Director Grant Schmelzer recommended improved collaboration driven by federal and county partners to avoid conflicts over who can access job skills training at community colleges throughout the state. “It’s very difficult for employers to obtain that information,” he said. “Online [education] and streamlining some of those processes may help.”
Since being named the new special projects director for Howard County’s Department of Planning and Zoning in March, Raj Kudchadkar said his office has taken a particular focus on Route 1.
“I’ll be working with the administration and the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) over the summer to come up with a set of specific goals for the corridor,” he said. “There’s been talk of moving toward transforming Route 1 to a high tech employment center and cybersecurity hub, and there’s the potential for tax incentives that can be used to leverage the type of business growth that we’d like to see there.”
As for the corridor’s potential, “I don’t think people fully understand the scope of things that are happening here,” said HCEDA CEO Larry Twele. “We’ve got a workforce ranging from Ph.D.s to entry-level folks; we’ve got manufacturing and food processing. The companies [attending the roundtable] represent at least 2,000 employees, a significant piece of our workforce, and I think most of [these companies] have grown or are in the midst of growing. It’s an incredible employment center and a tremendous powerhouse.”
As Cardin said, “There’s no simple answer, but I want to make sure we have a policy that will encourage companies to reach out and hire new employees. I want them to be able to do the things that will help our local economy.”