Despite not reaching it's job creation goals, Howard County's economy had a pretty good year in 2005, at least according to the CEO of the Economic Development Authority, Richard Story. And though such growth is admirable, it will pale in comparison to what we'll see in a few years when the military base realignment--slated to bring 5,300 new jobs to Fort Meade, as well as up to 15,000 new defense contractor positions--is finished.
While not all of the new defense workers will live in Howard County--Story predicts about 40 percent will--those who do decide to make our county their home will need housing and services, the latter of which will lead to a further increase in jobs, though typically the low-wage type.
Good news, right? Maybe not.
The same story above mentions some undeniable facts that we have heretofore decided to sweep under the rug.
Although there are no trends suggesting an economic reversal for the county, there are issues that, if not addressed, could cause problems in the future.
One of the most problematic is declining land to accommodate growth. The Department of Planning and Zoning projects that at the current rate of growth the county will exhaust all developable land by 2020.
In-fill development in places such as Town Center in Columbia, Maple Lawn and Emerson and, ultimately along the U.S. 1 corridor, "is still a relief valve," Story says, "... but at some point in the near future, we run out of land for residential, retail, commercial and industrial."
The only other options are permitting higher density in areas such as Town Center, Turf Valley, Maple Lawn and Emerson, or permitting more growth in rural western Howard County. But the public and elected officials have opposed both, sometimes vehemently.
Higher density is anathema to many in this county. However, many of these same people bemoan the increasing economic exclusivity of this county, saying it runs counter to the character of our community, particularly Columbia, which was founded on including residents of all incomes--something that is important for social as well as economic reasons (somebody's got to fill the low paying jobs, right?). Unfortunately, we can't have it both ways.
Thankfully, Story recognizes the looming problem, saying "Affordable housing is the real question mark, but it's a question you have to start addressing today, even though the impact will be beyond 2010."
One of the big problems I see with the issues of growth in this county is an inability to look beyond the horizons of our immediate future (5 years, give or take). Whenever growth is brought up, the discussion immediately gravitates to overcrowded schools and increased traffic, as if these impacts are going to be felt tomorrow.
The plain truth is that there are both good and bad things about growth (or, positive and negative externalities). The county has already slowed the pace of growth to a crawl and this, coupled with the Federal Reserve's foolishly low interest rates, created housing "froth" and maybe a bubble (many like to say Howard's housing market will withstand a cooling off period without appreciable drops in prices--just a leveling off--but I'm not so sure).
It's time for us to have honest discussions about the future of this county and how it will grow. Not conversations based on fear and short-sightedness. Sadly, the only person I've found willing to have this dialogue is me, and talking to oneself is generally perceived as a sign of craziness, a label that's never scared me in the past.