An increase in the number of building permits issued last year is giving Howard County officials hope that the economy will improve, even as they consider the first year-to-year drop in the number of jobs in the county in three decades.
The key indicators, presented Thursday morning at a citizens committee meeting on government spending, show both the depth of the recession and the hope that it might be starting to fade. The jump from 1,066 residential building permits issued in 2008 - the lowest number in more than 30 years - to 1,480 last year signals that a recovery may be coming, said county planning research director Jeff Bronow.
"I think it's a positive sign. Somebody's getting financing," Bronow said, even though the number of new units completed is still low.
"We're in the tunnel right now," said county budget director Raymond S. Wacks, "but there's light at the end."
Wacks organizes the county's appointed Spending Affordability Committee, a group of citizens tasked with recommending spending and borrowing levels for the coming fiscal year's budget. The group then reports to the county executive in February.
At Thursday's meeting, county Economic Development Authority CEO Richard W. Story talked about the loss of about 5,000 jobs in the first half of 2009, which he said was the first time that the number of jobs has declined in Howard County in more than 30 years. Through the first seven years of the past decade, he said, the county averaged 2 percent to 3 percent annual growth in jobs, and in 2007 and 2008, Howard was second in Maryland in job creation behind Anne Arundel County.
But that growth reversed in the first half of 2009.
Still, Story tempered the gloomy news with a glowing description of huge job and development growth that is expected to come from the military base realignment and closure process, or BRAC, and other expansions in the Fort Meade area.
"We'll be awash in lease signings in a year," Story said. "At this session next year, no one will have any doom and gloom except Ray," he joked, referring to Wacks. "There is a lag," he said, between increased economic activity and revenue flowing to the county treasury.
Story said that while BRAC is expected to absorb about 2 million square feet of office space, the expected location of a Cyber Security Command at Fort Meade will need 5 million square feet. Commercial offices being built at Emerson, which straddles Interstate 95 in North Laurel, along the U.S. 1 corridor, and plans for 4.3 million square feet of new offices in Columbia's Town Center will "catch that wave," he said. Even if the primary federal offices are in Anne Arundel, he said, the need for space will push private ancillary companies into Howard County.
"Companies are going to places where people are smart," Story said. "It is an exciting time to be in my business."
But office vacancy rates in the county are at about 16 percent, higher than the optimal 10 percent. And Howard County unemployment is 5.3 percent, the lowest in Maryland but more than double the county's rate in 2007.
Though residential construction is still low, Bronow showed the group charts indicating that a rebound might be coming.
Meanwhile, the mix of housing is changing in Howard. Instead of more than half of the new homes being detached, single-family structures, most will now be apartments and townhouses, many along the U.S. 1 corridor, at the three county MARC train stations, and in downtown Columbia if the County Council approves zoning Monday night for up to 5,500 new units.
In 2008, Bronow said, single-family detached homes made up 56 percent of the total; in 2009, 34 percent of the permits issued in the county were for such homes. The percentage of permits issued for apartments rose from 23 percent to 32 percent in the period, and for townhouses, from 21 percent to 34 percent, Bronow said.
Another 7,338 units are in the development processing pipeline, not including the new Columbia units, Bronow said, though 5,464 will come in phased projects through the next decade. About 2,400 of those units are to be built in two large developments along U.S. 1 north of Route 175, at Bluestream, next to the former Luskin's shopping center, and at Howard Park, which is the former Aladdin Mobile Home Park.
Based on current zoning, he said, the county is about 80 percent built out, though another 30,000 residential units could be built by 2035. The county now has 106,169 homes.
Story said the county has the land to accommodate offices for the expected wave of federal jobs, but the lack of state money to improve roads and transit is a major problem.
With sagging revenue expected over the next several years, Wacks said the county also faces a difficult challenge in preparing for the expected upturn in growth.
"How do we balance the budget now without denigrating the services for what is coming?"