Howard panel OKs AlliedSignal deal $7.5 million offer appears to keep 900 jobs in county

October 07, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council approved yesterday a bold economic development bid, agreeing to buy the aging Columbia headquarters of AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp. for $7.5 million.

The deal, proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, nearly unraveled in recent days in the face of opposition from Council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader, who called it a bad deal for taxpayers.

"If the private sector can buy this building for $7.5 million then we should leave it on the tax rolls," said Schrader, a North Laurel Republican who proposed paying only $6 million.

But after a final round of lobbying by Ecker, a Republican, the council voted 3-1 to approve the purchase, which underscores the trend toward governments giving big incentive packages to attract and keep major employers.

Final negotiations between Ecker and company officials are still ahead, but the deal appears to keep AlliedSignal, on Bendix Road in Columbia, from taking its 900 Howard County jobs elsewhere.

The company had been looking for a new headquarters closer to Washington.

But a company official recently told the council that AlliedSignal now intends to move into a new building in Columbia. Ecker has said the county's offer to buy the old headquarters building is dependent on such a deal.

In the deal, Howard County also would gain 200,000 square feet of office and warehouse space on 29 acres in Columbia. Ecker plans to fill at least half of that with offices that rent space at county expense.

Not a single Howard County resident testified against the purchase at a public hearing in September, but a combination of factors nearly sank it yesterday.

The deal had three solid supporters on Howard County's five-member council. But one supporter, east Columbia Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, left the country Saturday for a two-week trip to China.

That left two clear supporters, one fewer than needed for a majority.

One of the remaining council members was Schrader, a Republican candidate for county executive who had grown wary of the purchase.

Last week, Schrader proposed an amendment to lower the purchase price to $6 million and said he would not likely support the higher price of $7.5 million.

Ecker, facing possible defeat, turned his attention to Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican.

Drown's district includes AlliedSignal but he had criticized the deal from the beginning, saying the county didn't need the space and shouldn't be giving such lucrative incentives to a private company.

Drown also complained about the building's annual operating costs of $1.4 million and worried that county government might expand to fill the extra space in the AlliedSignal building.

But after a long conversation with Ecker yesterday, Drown changed his mind, concluding that the deal was not a "corporate bailout" for AlliedSignal.

"I have absolute implicit faith in Chuck [Ecker] to make right decisions," Drown said moments before yesterday's council meeting.

With Drown's support, the purchase won approval by a 3-1 vote.

Also voting yes were Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, and Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican and candidate in the 1998 county executive race.

"I think it's a great deal," Feaga said at the meeting. "The ground itself is probably worth $7 million."

Company and county officials hope to close the deal in December. For a year or more after that, AlliedSignal would remain in the building and pay rent to the county while it waits for a new headquarters to be built.

The company has been looking at several locations in Columbia, including the Gateway Drive business park along Route 175 and Town Center near the mall.

Only after the move would county offices begin moving into the building. The county and school system spend more than $1 million a year renting office and warehouse space.

County officials say it will cost $3 million to renovate the AlliedSignal building for county use.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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