Quality of life, location key to business growth

Quality of life, location key to growth

Economy: Howard County led the state between 1991 and 2001 with a 65.2 percent increase in jobs.

March 23, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Going from four partners working out of Rajiv Jain's Columbia townhouse to 18 full- and part-time employees working across the country, a2z Inc. is a business built in Howard County.

The company, which was established in 1998 and develops Web-based software to manage and market trade shows and events, is one of 7,426 businesses in the county enjoying a healthy economic environment and a nice place to call home.

"We start with an excellent, if not unparalleled, geographic location," said Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Between Baltimore and Washington, Howard County draws from the fourth-largest population cluster and the fourth-wealthiest marketplace in the country, according to the authority.

Add to that available land, an educated and highly trained work force and a reputation for a high quality of life, and Howard is positioned for continued business and economic growth, Story said.

Between 1991 and 2001, Howard County led the state with 65.2 percent job growth, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulations. The county added 52,446 total jobs, second only to much larger Montgomery County.

The average weekly wage per worker grew from $497 in 1990 to $773 in 2001, according to the state.

Technology has been a hot growth area for the county, including an increasing number businesses transferring technology from research institutions - including the nearby Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory - to commercial applications, Story said. Health care, financial services and manufacturing (which includes printing and publishing) are also growing areas.

"Howard County's been great to us," said Michael Hatch, senior vice president of marketing and sales for a2z.

After several years as a home-based business, a2z joined the economic development authority's NeoTech Incubator, which offers management assistance and business and development services for new high-tech companies.

Now a2z has offices in Columbia Town Center, with plans to triple its current production of 100 shows a year by the end of this year.

Hatch praised Howard County's location, with easy access to big cities minus the heavy traffic. And, he said, "particularly on the technology side, there's a very strong base [of workers] to draw on."

The county is one of the state's fastest-growing regions, increasing in population by 34 percent over the past decade, according to statistics from the development authority. Residents are among the state's wealthiest with a median household income of nearly $74,200.

"In today's economy ... continuation of success is based upon human capital," Story said. Companies need smart people and Howard County, with the state's highest level of educational achievement, has them.

The housing market "is very strong, so strong we don't have enough houses to sell to people that want to live here," said Melvina Brown, president-elect of the Howard County Association of Realtors.

Convenient amenities, arts organizations and family activities are drawing buyers, Brown said, and the excellent reputation of the school system attracts many families with children to the area.

Those features draw workers and employers, Story said. When companies narrow their potential locations, where the decision makers will live becomes an important factor.

"Two primary factors they look at are ... high attainment in the schools and low achievement in crimes," Story said.

At the same time, "it is really difficult for buyers," said Brown, a real estate agent with Re/Max Columbia's Ellicott City Office. One client recently lost out to another buyer despite a contract offering up to $246,000 for a house listed at $239,000.

The realtors association is working to encourage more moderate- and low-income housing options, which are scarce.

Affordable locations are also the biggest challenge facing the business community in the future, Story said. The county is expected to run out of land for building in 2020.

Developments on the drawing board - Maple Lawn and Emerson, both on Route 216 - include 2.5 million square feet of potential office space, Story said. After that, U.S. 1, which is the target of revitalization plans, "is our last frontier."

Even now, "We are not the low-price option," Story said. But while bargain-hunters may be turned off by Howard's high real estate prices, he is confident the long-term return is worthwhile to many businesses.

"Looking at the long-term business climate and conditions that exist to make [companies] profitable into perpetuity," Story said, "Howard County will win that decision every time."

Business resources

Economic Development Authority: Assists businesses with land and building selection, financing, employee recruitment and training, permit and regulatory issues, and provides other development support services. 410-313-6500.

Chamber of Commerce: Assists members with business-to-business networking, employment and other services. 410-730-4111.

County development and planning services: County government provides many land-use development and building safety services, www.co.ho.md. us/servicesbusiness_ developmentland.htm

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