Howard attracts business with its fine quality of life

Livability: Companies find the county's low crime rate, good schools, affluence and central location alluring.

March 21, 2004|By Anthony A. Mullen | Anthony A. Mullen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's a business bromide that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location.

But for Howard County - strategically situated in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor - location would seem to be its biggest business draw.

"Howard sits at the heart of the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States," said Richard Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

But many executives say what lures their companies to Howard and persuades them to stay is that intangible factor called quality of life.

"Livability factors such as having statistically low crime and statistically high education is a major part of what makes the area so attractive to businesses," Story said. "The public school system has been ranked No. 1 for, I believe, 12 out of the last 14 years. Smart companies look for smart people, and Howard County has the highest percentage in the country of adult population with a high school degree or equivalent [93 percent]."

Story also said that Howard ranks as the 11th-wealthiest county in the country and has the highest median household income in the state - $74,167 according to the Census Bureau. "The people here are smart and affluent," he said.

One such "smart company" is Cylex, a life sciences firm that has been in Howard County since it was started in 1992. Founded as BTI, the company changed its name to Cylex in 1998.

At its facility on Old Annapolis Road in Columbia, Cylex develops and manufactures medical blood tests for the assessment of immunity. In 2002, Cylex received FDA clearance for its product ImmuKnow, which is used to measure the immune response of patients receiving immunosuppressant therapy for organ transplantation.

Judith Britz, chairman and chief executive of Cylex, explained that for her, what makes Howard County such a good place to build a business is its access to brain power.

"As a life science business, I like Howard County because we are located in the nucleus of academic educational institutions like Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and Georgetown," she said. "We also have government research institutions nearby, such as NIH [National Institutes of Health] and regulatory bodies like the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]. We have easy access to great science and great scientists."

Popular schools

Aside from location, Britz also noted the importance of the county school system's performance. "We certainly have a highly educated work force, and they want good schools for their children," she said. "The area attracts people who want to be involved parents in their children's education."

What the county needs more of, she said, is access to capital for start-ups and business expansion.

"There is an unusual wealth of technology here and access to scientific experts," Britz said. "We have an opportunity to capitalize on a friendly environment, and you'd like to see increased access to capital to improve the success of the entrepreneurial climate here."

Cylex is among 7,000 businesses in Howard County, employing about 133,000 people, not including the military. It is significant, observers say, that 80 percent of new jobs in the county come from existing companies.

"Companies are voting to stay here, and when companies do move, employees seem to stay," Story said. "I think that says a lot about what the area has to offer."

John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, a consulting company attached to Towson University, calls Howard County "one of the best-performing counties in the state, if not the best."

In the second quarter of 2003, Howard saw an annual net job growth rate of 0.5 percent, while the state grew at a rate of 0.3 percent, Hopkins said. For comparison, the country as a whole saw a net loss in jobs of 0.4 percent during the same period.

"This is a function of Howard County's quality of labor force," Hopkins said. "They attract professionals that have attained high education, which has led to growth in business services, health services and education services."

According to Hopkins, the greatest challenge is keeping up with the growth.

"County officials are always trying to figure out how they can keep improving the infrastructure, keep the schools performing as well as they have," he said. "County officials realize that they need to keep providing the quality of life that these professionals are looking for. [Officials] are looking for ways to provide support for growth to offset recent drops in government revenues. They realize they still need to provide services to a growing population."

Entrepreneurs welcome

Hopkins said he believes that Howard is an ideal place for entrepreneurs.

"Howard County is a good place to start a business," he said. "Capital investment is available, while proximity to federal, state and local governments makes it a good place for consultants and others who service that sector."

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