Chamber President McClarty talks ‘Future of Howard County’ with BBJ

Chamber President Leonardo McClarty was part of a panel of Howard County’s leaders including Chamber members Milton Matthews, Columbia Association, John Hermann, COPT and Greg Fitchitt, Howard Hughes Corporation that participated in the Baltimore Business Journal’s “Future of Howard County” event this week. Baltimore Business Journal Associate Editor Jessica Iannetta wrote the following article.

Panelists discuss development, population boom at Future of Howard County event

Columbia has come a long way since developer James Rouse first envisioned the planned community more than 50 years ago. But the town’s ambitious plans for downtown development — which include self-parking cars and hi-tech office buildings — may eclipse even Rouse’s biggest dreams.

Columbia is in the midst of a $1 billion, 30-year redevelopment plan piloted by real estate firm Howard Hughes Corp. that will transform its downtown. With a glut of new apartment buildings and office space already online and more to come, the once sleepy suburb is well on its way to becoming an urban center.That continued redevelopment was the focus of the Baltimore Business Journal’s Future of Howard County panel discussion, which took place Tuesday morning inside one of those new office buildings — the year-old Two Merriweather tower.

“Twenty years from now, I believe this will be the center of culture and commerce for the region,” said Greg Fitchitt, senior vice president of development for Howard Hughes, told the crowd of more than 200. “After D.C. and Baltimore, this will be the third place. You can see the beginnings here, with what we’ve done with the building we’re in today.”

In addition to Fitchitt, panelists included John Hermann, vice president of asset management and leasing at COPT; Milton MatthewsColumbia Associationpresident and CEO; and Leonardo McClarty, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce. BBJ Digital Editor Carley Milligan moderated the discussion. While much of the conversation centered around the redevelopment of Columbia, the panel also discussed the residential growth in the county, infrastructure needs and the area’s tech boom.

Howard Hughes received $90 million tax increment financing for the project. So far, the county has issued $50 million of infrastructure bonds to fund new roads into the south part of the Merriweather district. Under the TIF, a portion of the property taxes from the new development will go to pay back the bonds, Fitchitt noted.

But the downtown improvements aren’t the only pockets of redevelopment in the area.

The nearby Columbia Gateway office park has also undergone a revitalization of its own. COPT owns about half of the 4.5 million square feet of office space in the park and Hermann said that even with all the new office space available, he doesn’t think the market is saturated. COPT is looking to differentiate itself by renovating and redesigning its buildings, many of which are 20 years old. Often, that means adding shared conference rooms, fitness centers, break rooms and other amenity spaces that are attractive to tenants.

COPT also leverages its relationship with government agencies, Hermann said, noting that Howard County is a good place for that with its proximity to Washington, D.C., Fort Meade and more.

Long-term though, COPT is looking beyond offices to make Columbia Gateway a more mixed-used development with retail and residential, Hermann said.

“The sidewalks do roll up in Columbia Gateway after about 5:30, 6 o’clock. It’s pretty sleepy,” he said. “That’s the future of real estate — mixed-use projects are hot and they’re where everyone wants to be. Long-term, if we can introduce some more of those elements to Columbia Gateway, I think we will do well.”

Accompanying that office space growth has been an increase in residents coming to the county. Much of the residential growth is coming in the downtown and has been fueled by millennials, Fitchitt said. As this generation ages and settles down, they’re often looking to move out of cramped apartments in Baltimore and D.C., and into the surrounding counties where there’s more space and better schools available, he said. Columbia is perfectly positioned for this, since the redevelopment of downtown to add restaurants, live music venues and other attractions allows this generation to still be near all the things they love about living in a city, Fitchitt said.

But McClarty noted that Howard County does continue to be popular with families, whether the parents are millennials or not. The strong school system remains a big draw as does the county’s many amenities like its parks and diverse population, he said. However, a regional public transportation system remains a significant need, McClarty said.

In addition to looking at the generational differences in how people get from place to place, Howard County needs to look at workers commuting in and out of the county as well as those who don’t work traditional hours, he said. This would be particularly important if Inc. ends up locating its second headquarters in Montgomery County or if another large company comes to Howard County, he said.

“We need something that ultimately helps address and move the needle to spark some creativity and ingenuity in terms of how we get from point A to point B,” McClarty said.

That solution may well come from one of the many tech companies that have come to Howard County in recent years. They range from Annapolis Junction-based STEER — which will bring its technology that allows cars to self-park to the Merriweather District next year — to cybersecurity company Tenable Inc., which Fitchitt called “a homegrown, Howard County unicorn.” The company, which will be the anchor tenant in the next Merriweather District office building, recently went public with a $265 million IPO.

The National Security Agency is also nearby, not to mention the many other small business that contribute in some way to the tech industry, Matthews said. Overall, he doesn’t expect Howard County’s growth to stop anytime soon, he said.

“Whether it’s the presence of Amazon in Montgomery County or just building upon one of Howard County’s many assets — its location halfway between D.C. and Baltimore — it’s going to continue to roll,” Matthews said.

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