Howard Week

May 26, 2002

Signs of recovery seen in commercial real estate market

After five straight quarters of slowing, and a vacancy rate of 16.5 percent, local observers of the commercial real estate market in Howard County say they are seeing the first signs of recovery.

Within the past month, companies have gobbled up 150,000 square feet of office space in the Columbia Gateway office park, and deals have picked up at the Troy Hill flex office complex near Route 100.

But most local brokers are not ready to break out the champagne just yet. Lower-priced subleases are putting pressure on the market, and the slump affecting the telecommunications industry and a few others could put Howard's market in line for another dip.

Friends of ailing judge create Web site for him

When news went out a few months ago that Howard District Judge C. James "Kit" Sfekas was battling medullary thyroid cancer, the response was instantaneous - and profuse.

Well-wishers overwhelmed phone lines at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, where Sfekas, 49, was recovering from surgery in the intensive care unit. They left messages - sometimes 15 or 20 a day. An Internet site that offers free Web pages for folks fighting illness finally offered an answer. Through CaringBridge, a Minnesota nonprofit organization, family friend Deb Fieldhouse was able to create a Web site devoted to Sfekas' illness and recovery.

Since its creation, March 4, the page has logged more than 7,000 visitors and 400 guest book messages.

Dundalk minister charged in Internet sex sting

A Dundalk minister has been arrested and charged with soliciting sexual intercourse from a Maryland State Police trooper posing as a 13-year-old named Jennifer in an Internet chat room.

The Rev. Jonathan N. Gerstner, 44, is accused of sending instant messages to "Jennifer" from his Inverness Presbyterian Church computer beginning at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday and, within hours, arranging an afternoon sexual tryst with the girl at a park in Bowie, police spokesman Lt. Bud Frank said.

"He truly believed he was talking to a 13-year-old the whole time," Frank said.

Using the screen name "baltimorecare," Gerstner wrote that he wanted to teach the girl about sex, according to a statement of probable cause filed in Howard County District Court.

Tight county budget wins nonpartisan support

Two years ago, bitter partisan bickering marked adoption of Howard County's annual budget, but despite big money troubles and a fast-approaching election this year, that was not repeated Wednesday.

The combined package of County Executive James N. Robey's $824 million operating spending plan and the $106.4 million capital budget won 5-0 final approval during an afternoon meeting in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, though the County Council's two Republicans objected to several items.

"I agree with 90 percent of the operating budget and all of the capital budget," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon. Differences emerged over fiscal and philosophical principles, he said, but faced with lower revenues, "I'm certainly not blaming the executive for the budget he submitted."

Basketball fund-raiser set for stricken athlete

When she was going to school in Howard County, Rayna DuBose loved playing basketball, being around people and having a good time. So how better to get her friends, family and neighbors together in her honor than to hold a barbecue, basketball game and shoot-out contest in the Columbia community she calls home: Oakland Mills.

That's what members of the Oakland Mills High School community thought when they imagined the perfect fund-raiser for the 2001 graduate and former star basketball player who went to Virginia Tech last fall on the high tide of a promising future but was hit hard by tragedy. Community members have organized a charity function, to be held June 11 at Oakland Mills, that will resemble a mini-county fair to help raise $25,000 to assist the family with medical bills and living expenses.

DuBose's parents recently told friends that the 18-year-old has been recovering in a Virginia hospital after complications from meningococcal meningitis led to gangrene and amputation of her hands and feet.

Environmental objections block park bike trail

A group of environmentalists derailed a plan Wednesday to build a disputed $1.5 million bike trail and bridge that would run through Patapsco Valley State Park on the border of Howard and Baltimore counties.

Though Maryland officials recommended that the state Board of Public Works approve the project, known as the Grist Mill Trail extension, the environmentalists raised enough questions about the 1.25-mile project to have it temporarily withdrawn from consideration.

A contractor's bid to build the trail for nearly $1.5 million will expire Tuesday, meaning that if the project is approved it would have to go out for bid again and could cost more.

School board loosens rules on use of facilities

Nonprofit groups that want to use school facilities to serve children will be able to do so without having to pay a fee, thanks to letters, e-mail and public testimony from community members who said fees were unfair.

The Board of Education voted Thursday night to change its policy on how the community uses the county's 67 school buildings and fields.

Instead of giving free access to school space only to groups that have PTA sponsorship or have volunteer leaders, the system's community services director expanded the benefit to all nonprofit groups that are youth-oriented and provide educational or community services.

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