The recession's debilitating effects on the private and public economies may dominate the news, but Howard County Executive Ken Ulman banished the gloomy talk in his fifth annual "State of the County" speech to about 400 people at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday.
He did acknowledge the economic malaise, but stayed upbeat despite the threat of another round of state budget cuts and still-meager revenues.
"We know we have a way to go before exiting the tunnel," Ulman said in opening. "But we have spent the last four years ensuring that when the recovery does take hold, Howard County is fully engaged in taking advantage of the opportunities created by this economic transformation."
After the speech, Ulman said he had wanted to hit a more positive tone.
"I think people know that," he said about the fiscal problems and risks that still plague both the county and the state. "People are tired of all that stuff."
Chamber President and CEO Pam Klahr agreed. "We need upbeat now," she said.
"Just look at this crowd today," she said, gesturing toward the full ballroom at Turf Valley Resort . "If there's anything we can do for the economy, it's give it a kick."
Ulman reviewed the litany of his accomplishments, emphasizing his budget cuts and belt-tightening as well as the county's continuing heavy investment in education and public safety. He again praised county employees' efforts during last February's heavy snows, Ellicott City/Columbia's rating by Money magazine as the second-best place to live in the United States, and the new federal defense and cybersecurity jobs that should begin arriving by the thousands in the coming year.
He noted that Gary J. Arthur, the county's recreation and parks director who died three months after the snowstorms, personally worked until midnight during one of the storms to clear a vehicle path for a woman who was expecting to give birth the following morning. Arthur's widow, Martha Arthur, was in the audience, as was Nesbitt Brown, the husband of the late Maggie Brown, who was president of the Columbia Association for eight years before her retirement and death months later.
On the hopeful side, Ulman talked about the downtown Columbia redevelopment plan, and Howard's leadership role in bringing a $115 million federal grant to connect every jurisdiction in Maryland with broadband fiber-optic cable.
"We are preparing ourselves for the new economy," he said, and quipped that Maryland's nickname should be "the online state" rather than "The Old Line State." When completed, the system will connect public safety agencies, schools, colleges, libraries, senior centers and other public offices via 1,200 miles of cable that is also expected to save money paid now to private communications firms while also encouraging new private businesses to lease use of the lines.
'It's the only broadband grant awarded in the country that will connect an entire state," he said.
Finally, Ulman praised the county for its sometimes-mocked "Choose Civility" campaign spearheaded by the county library system — something he highlighted after the recent shootings in Tucson, Ariz., sparked a national debate over the tone and language of political rhetoric.
"I firmly believe that civility leads to a virtuous cycle. Civility helps us talk to each other, rather than at each other," he said after joking that "thousands of car bumpers with green [Choose Civility] magnets simply couldn't be wrong."
Steven H. Adler, managing partner of Savage Mill, a Republican former candidate for county executive and a prominent supporter of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in last year's election, had no bone to pick with Ulman, a Democrat who won a second term.
"I think his last three budgets have been reasonable budgets," Adler said. "I thought he did a pretty good job" in making his speech.