Economic Development in Howard

June 20, 1992

It would be easy to blame Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker for the middling progress the county has made on the economic development front.

But look at what Mr. Ecker had to work with.

Under former County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, Howard's economic development office had been the county's step child; shunted aside, its missions given low priority. It was even consigned to a small house, far from government offices.

Granted, those were different times. Ms. Bobo faced a snarling group of no-growth proponents. Economic development efforts were best left under wraps. Besides, the county had little experience in this area since for more than two decades it relied on the Rouse Co. to be its de facto economic development office.

By the time Mr. Ecker was elected in 1991, the Rouse Co. had relegated itself to a minor role and the recession was winding up for the long haul. A more aggressive approach was essential.

To Mr. Ecker's credit, and that of Economic Development Director Dyan Brasington, several significant steps have been taken. Mr. Ecker elevated to department status the county's economic development office. And he has the economic development director reporting directly to him.

Also, he re-activated the county's development advisory panel and put forth a new economic development plan. The county had been without a plan since 1978.

Still, there is a long way to go. Howard County's office vacancy rate in February was listed at 29 percent, the highest in the Baltimore region.

While some progress has been made in luring new business to the county, only one -- Ford Motor Credit Company -- represents a major catch. Attempts to woo Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola to the county have been met by community opposition. Both projects are in limbo.

Now, with Ms. Brasington expected to leave her position this fall, concerns about continuity will further test Mr. Ecker's abilities. A proposal is being looked at that would give the economic development office greater autonomy from county government. Such a move, if properly done, might insulate the office from the sometimes capricious changes that come with each new election.

For Howard County, that would be another step toward making its economic development effort a professional one that produces results.

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