New Howard development chief calls county 'hidden gem'

Laura Neuman says county needs polishing and repackaging

  • Laura Neuman, who became the Director of Economic Development for Howard County on Monday, visited a new technology company headquarters and a redeveloped shopping center Wednesday morning.
Laura Neuman, who became the Director of Economic Development… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
April 07, 2011|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

When Laura Neuman turned down a half-million-dollar salary in 1999 in order to take over a Columbia technology company nearing bankruptcy, she discovered two things.

After raising $17 million in venture capital for Matrics Inc., which was later sold for $230 million, the Annapolis resident learned she could trust her business instincts. She also realized that Columbia's downtown held little appeal for single young professionals like herself.

Now 46, married and the mother of two young children, Neuman is back at work in Howard County with a different life perspective and a different job. As the new CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, she heads a public-private partnership that works to attract new businesses and create jobs to boost the county's tax base.

Even though a decade has passed, Neuman still feels Columbia and the rest of the county are hidden gems in need of polishing and repackaging.

"Everyone doesn't know what this county has to offer. But I'm on the outside looking in and can be very objective, and I see a huge opportunity here," said Neuman, a Baltimore native.

While she's "amazed at the county's incredible resources and development potential," Neuman still thinks Columbia's town center must be made more attractive to a younger demographic and so she is highly supportive of the 30-year master plan approved last February, she said.

"Howard County has everything — location, good schools, libraries, parks," she said. "The question is: How do you take this solid foundation and these tremendous assets and get that package out to the world?"

One boost to expanding her marketing strategy occurred Wednesday when the Maryland General Assembly passed a higher hotel tax for Howard County. The HCEDA will soon receive one-third of the additional revenue generated, or about $400,000 of the $1.2 million that is projected annually. The county tourism office will get the other two-thirds.

The measure raises the tax on hotel rooms from 5 percent to 7 percent and, if approved by Gov. Martin O'Malley, will become law in June. The new revenue stream will be added to the approximately $1.3 million the HCEDA receives annual from the county, which funds 85 percent of the authority's budget, according to County Executive Ken Ulman. The other 15 percent is contributed by the private sector.

Neuman spent the past week holding staff meetings, touring the county with County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, and visiting places like Ancile Solutions, a software company that opened its global headquarters Wednesday on Marshalee Road in Elkridge — even though Monday is her first official day on the job.

"Columbia is not unlike Silicon Valley with its clusters of development and residential communities," said the director, who most recently led an entrepreneur program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Neuman — who raised a few eyebrows among acquaintances when she and her husband, technology salesman Paul Volkman, pulled up stakes on the East Coast in 2008 and moved with their two toddlers to the West Coast for a year — is familiar with the California culture and thinks some segments could be worth replicating in Howard County.

"I'm not suggesting a change in lifestyle, just creating a place where businesses want to locate and can have the federal government as one of their customers," she said.

The HCEDA's online real-estate inventory chart shows that there is room for growth. Total office space has grown by 51 percent since 2000, from 10.7 million square feet to 16 million, and the vacancy rate has dropped down to 14.6 percent from a high of nearly 16 percent in 2008, according to the HCEDA website. The total inventory of office, retail and "flex" space is listed as 58 million square feet.

Before the HCEDA vacancy was announced, Neuman said, she had little interest in working in economic development. In fact, she was in the final stages of negotiating to run yet another Howard technology start-up just three days before Ulman announced on March 4 that she'd accepted the job offer.

"It's Howard County's economic development in particular that I'm interested in," she said, calling her selection an "out-of-the-box choice" on Ulman's part. A colleague who was a former member of the county executive's staff had suggested she apply, she added.

Ulman said it was Neuman's standout professional and personal backgrounds that made her his top pick to replace Richard Story, who retired in February after 17 years on the job. Ulman's nomination was approved by the HCEDA board, which set Neuman's salary at $200,000.

"We're a global leader situated in the heart of one of the most successful regions on the planet," Ulman said of Howard County. "Laura understands what it takes to build a successful company and how to create cyber-security jobs so we can become even stronger."

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