For now, county employees say farewell to old headquarters

November 06, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Larry.carson@baltsun.com

Pat Britt is happy to say goodbye to the closet mouse traps and poor ventilation in her corner of the 32-year-old George Howard Building.

On the other hand, Ann Ryder, who has sat in the building's lobby for 22 years directing perplexed visitors and collecting memorabilia, is sad about leaving.

They were among the last few dozen Howard County workers to leave the soaring brick-and-metal structure that is set to undergo a long-delayed $20 million renovation over the next year or so. County offices moved to a modern two-story office building in Columbia for the interim.

All over the building, color-tagged blue plastic bins were stacked Friday waiting for the movers, as jean-clad public works employees posed with co-workers for a last snapshot in familiar surroundings, while planning staff downstairs enjoyed a few laughs with a pizza lunch in a conference room traditionally reserved for serious business.

Britt began working in 1973 at age 19, she said. She was among the first to move into the building in 1977.

"It's just been dirty for so long," she said. "I'll be happy to come back here once it's renovated."

A few corridors away, Tina Hackett posed for a snapshot with seven co-workers in real estate.

Hackett, 54, started work in the building before it was finished.

"I think it's kind of good," she said about moving. "We need a change every so often."

Not everyone felt that way, though.

"It's kind of sad," said Susan Schubel, a 21-year veteran in the building, adding that she took a long last look after work.

In the lobby, Ryder also mourned the loss of her glass front public information office for a 5-by-5-foot cubicle in the temporary space.

"I was in charge of the dedication of this building," she recalled. "I'm really sad."

The small snack bar in the building's basement closed Oct. 17. Joel Penenburgh, 56 of Columbia, the operator for the past five years with his daughter Randi, 30, said he'd probably go back to accounting work.

"I should be OK," he said.

Penenburgh took over the operation to help his daughter, who has a mild mental disability, establish a work history, and they've both had a good ride, he said.

"I think it's fine," he said. "For us, it's been a good time."

The line of portraits of Howard's executives - from Omar Jones (1969-74) to James N. Robey (1998-2006) - will go into storage while the renovations are under way, said James M. Irvin, the public works director.

In many ways, the modern Columbia office building that county employees will be sharing with Ascend One, a credit counseling firm, is a big improvement over the George Howard Building. But the new space means a slightly longer commute for some.

"It's clean. It's new," said Ginny Vargo, a 19-year veteran of the George Howard Building. "I do like the fact that we have a place to hang our coats."

Vargo now sits stage left from the new building's entrance to greet those who need help with planning and zoning issues.

Another advantage for residents - no nettlesome parking meters.

Although the move has caused some confusion, employees appreciate the new digs, Irvin said.

"This is all high-end," Irvin said about the cubicles and furniture left by the private firm for the county's workers to use.

Although everyone, including County Executive Ken Ulman, will be in small office cubicles, the building has some private rooms, and also has a first-rate, restaurant-style cafeteria. The George Howard Building has a small snack bar in the basement, but no room for workers to sit and eat.

"It will be tough to get them out of here," Irvin said, joking.

The County Council members have access to their offices via a covered rear entrance, though their official sessions will take place at school board headquarters on Route 108 so they can be televised.

The two-story building seems as wide as an airport terminal concourse, though agencies with direct public contact like Vargo's will be on the first floor, near the large, glass-bordered lobby.

Residents visiting the building will need escorts to keep people from getting lost, Irvin said.

"People aren't going to just wander through the building," he said.

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