Park helps Howard become a top job maker

Gateway area credited in 33.6 percent growth

July 25, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The startling success of Columbia's Gateway corporate park is putting small Howard County shoulder to shoulder with much larger jurisdictions among Maryland's top job producers.

Among the top three counties in attracting jobs -- competing with Montgomery and Baltimore -- Howard is becoming less a bedroom suburb and more a place where people work and live.

Gateway, south of Route 175 and bordering Interstate 95, is a driving force.

"What Gateway has allowed the county to do is accommodate the growth of high-tech and corporate firms," said Anirban Basu, director of applied economics at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. "Not even in Anne Arundel, Timonium, and Annapolis -- there's nothing on the same scale as Gateway," Basu said.

And Richard W. Story, Howard's economic development authority chief executive, expects things to keep improving. "We started the decade with about 80,000 jobs and expect to be over 120,000 by the end of the year," he said, with office, service, retail, restaurant and warehouse jobs popping up across Howard County, where the unemployment rate is under 2 percent.

It may lack the dramatic impact of the General Motors truck transmission plant coming to White Marsh, but Gateway is quietly pumping prosperity into Howard County.

The GM plant will save 500 jobs in Baltimore County. But Gateway has attracted 3,000 jobs to the 13-year-old Rouse Co. park in two years -- and company officials expect more than 4,000 others within three years, filling the company's 1.5 million square feet. It is the county's single biggest job generator, Story said.

Gateway's success, despite the early '90s recession, has helped spark a 33.6 percent growth in jobs in the county through 1997, according to state government figures.

The money generated by that growth has underwritten government services for residents and perhaps helped keep down property and income tax rates.

"For every 4,000 jobs added in Howard County, there's roughly a total income impact of $250 million a year," Basu said.

"It's that deep corporate base that really allows county government to pay for its operations. We have seen Howard's revenues increasingly generated by the corporate side. That's a very healthy sign," Basu said.

Howard government officials agree.

"It's a lot of jobs and a lot of tax base that requires little in services from the county. Anytime we can bring in that kind of development, it excites me," said County Executive James N. Robey. County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who has been on the council five terms and whose district includes Gateway, has a longer perspective.

"When you really face it, the Rouse Co. has been the economic engine for Howard County for decades. It's phenomenal," he said, referring to Columbia, and the continuing expansions within and outside the planned town.

More good-paying local jobs also mean more Howard residents living near their work, Robey said, reducing the county's problems with commuter traffic. More than a third of Gateway workers live in the Columbia area, Rouse officials say.

Kent Henderson, 43, who moved to the area a year ago with his wife and their Oakland Mills High 10th-grader, is one of those new jobholders. He got a telemarketing job at Gateway and then moved his family to Columbia from temporary quarters in Baltimore.

"I didn't want to fight I-95 or I-695. By the time you get to work, you'd be exhausted," he said.

And Edward A. Ely, vice president and director of land sales and marketing for Rouse, sees nothing but blue skies ahead for the nearly 600-acre park.

"We're actually blessed with a wide variety of employers. We are not dependent on any one industry," he said.

In addition to more than 80 available acres within the park, Rouse owns 90 developable acres north of Gateway across Route 175, Ely said. When all that's used up, Ely said, Rouse's focus will move south, to a new mixed-use community the developer is planning for the North Laurel area.

Gateway was born from the failure of an earlier venture -- the construction of a General Electric appliance manufacturing plant on 1,000 acres in east Columbia that Rouse officials hoped 30 years ago would provide jobs for their new town's residents.

Although four huge industrial buildings were constructed during the 1970s, the plant never lived up to its billing, and Rouse bought the land back for redevelopment, starting Gateway in 1986 with Mike's Train House, a 40,000-square-foot model train manufacturer.

Part of the appliance park land is the Snowden Square shopping center, Columbia's first big-box discount center, and three of the GE buildings have been converted for other industrial or warehouse uses. A fourth, renamed the Renaissance Center, is being renovated to join an office park explosion that has produced a bigger economic boost than the GE plant ever could have.

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