County's hope: A Happy (Budget) New YearThe county...

THE SCENE County currents and undercurrents

July 08, 1992|By Erik Nelson Town to uncork festival

County's hope: A Happy (Budget) New Year

The county government celebrated New Year's last week.

In July.

Everything from chocolate chip cookies to pasta was consumed at the party sponsored by the Office of Budget. But don't be alarmed over the expense: It was strictly potluck.

July 1 is the beginning of the fiscal year for the county government and a lot of other people who measure their years in budgets and quarterly reports. As anyone who follows such things knows, fiscal year 1992 was a good year to kiss goodbye.

And there were a few signs of hope for the infant known as FY 1993 on that otherwise gloomy, rain-soaked day.

The lines were longer than usual at the Department of Planning and Zoning's front counter, which some might take to be a sign of a boost in building activity.

In fact, the numbers from the last few months show a decided increase in building permits issued over last year's numbers. In May alone, 321 permits were issued, up 86 percent from May 1991.

Inside the office of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, however, there was no rejoicing.

A folded newspaper lay on his desk, showing the headline, "Md. officials put potential deficit at $240 million." No way to start the year.

The permits and long lines could be attributed to builders wanting to avoid having to meet the new sprinkler requirements, or to get in under the new excise tax wire.

"The next two or three months will probably be zero. Even if you have a permit doesn't mean you'll be able to sell a house," said Ecker. "I don't know about the economy. One day it looks like it's coming around, the next day it doesn't. It's going to be very slow, I think."

Was there was anything about the new year to be hopeful about?

He gestured to the grayness beyond the window.

"It's raining. That's positive. We need the rain." It's amazing that for a town with perhaps the state's highest per-capita consumption of wine and cheese, it took an act of the General Assembly for Columbia to have a wine festival.

Eleven winemakers in the state have had such success with a decade of state wine festivals in Carroll County that they have invited themselves to Howard County. Ever on the lookout for a tourist draw, the county Department of Recreation and Parks is preparing a warm welcome for them next spring, probably in Symphony Woods in Columbia's Town Center.

The event is made possible by a state law enacted in 1990 that allows Howard to hold wine festivals.

"Festivals are good for the county, they bring tourism dollars into the county, they bring people into the county, and they're fun for our residents," says Joanne Moroney, the department's special events coordinator.

The news was exciting -- to think that next spring we could sample Savage Spatlase, Chateau Chateau Ridge or Pinot Glenwood?

But hold on to your carafes, folks. The wineries aren't local. Most of them are in Frederick, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

State winemakers produce more than 300,000 bottles of wine annually, with sales of about $1.8 million, so it makes sense that they would want to capture the hearts and minds of Columbians.

The county is attempting to model its festival after Carroll County's wine bash, not after some of the coarser affairs in other states.

"I went to one in Virginia a few weeks ago. They charged $15 admission, and you could have unlimited samples of wine," Moroney says.

Carroll's festival charges $10, which includes tickets for 10 one-ounce samples of wine.

The event will also feature music, but alas, not the Grateful Dead.

"No. Absolutely not," says Moroney. "We would be looking at jazz, reggae and things like that."

To put all this together, the county will need volunteers. It is not yet known how many, but Carroll's fest used 900 to deal with its 22,000-plus crowd last fall. Those interested should call 313-7280.

Erik Nelson

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