Saturday, December 29, 2007

Making Her Voice Heard

Here's a portion of the letter we received from McKenzie Ditter, whose family owns Bun Penny. She gave us permission to reprint:

The Bun Penny market and cafe has been a part of the Columbia Mall for nearly forty years, and my family has owned it for the past eighteen. We have always struggled to survive in the mall, but after General Growth Properties' acquisition of the Rouse Company, it has become impossible. The day before this Thanksgiving, my father was notified that Bun Penny must leave the mall by January 15th. Just as they decided that Columbia no longer needed the Poinsettia Tree, they have decided that Bun Penny no longer has a place in the Columbia Mall.

Until now, my family has kept news of our closure a secret from customers and employees for fear of jeopardizing the final shipments from our food distributors. Now, with Christmas passed, I think it is safe to spread the word. I'd like Columbia to recognize the plight of small businesses in the profit-before-people culture fostered by companies like GGP. I want people to see how far the new owners of Columbia are straying from James Rouse's initial vision. My family has been struggling to pay an ever-increasing rent of $38,000 a month to a company based in Chicago that shows little to no regard for the traditions and institutions of Columbia.

I don't know what the future holds for Bun Penny, but knowing that it will no longer be a part of the mall is sad. As much as I dislike the superficiality of what the mall has become, it's hard to forget that it has been a second home to my father, mother, brother and me for as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I played in the straw barrels that we used for gift baskets. I threw temper-tantrums in front of customers, had countless crushes on cute deli boys twice my age, and broke more bottles of wine than I can remember. I collected coffee beans from the ground, made sandwich signs and window murals, sewed tablecloths, and catered the beautiful weddings of some of Columbia's most powerful residents. I can make a gift basket with my eyes closed and recite the prices of hundreds of cracker boxes and jellies and teas in my sleep. For better or worse, Bun Penny has been an extremely important part of my life, and I know I am not alone.

Bun Penny is a family business - not just my immediate family, but the extended family of employees, customers, and even old Harry the produce man. There are men and women working at this store who have known me since before I was born. The Bun Penny family has seen births, teenage romances, graduations, marriages, divorces, and deaths. Through it all, there has always been love and support for anyone in need. This family deserves to know how much they are worth and how much they have meant to us. This is not the first time that a family business has been driven out of the Columbia Mall and it does not bode well for the few that remain. Considering the Poinsettia Tree debacle, tradition appears to be a tender topic during the holidays and GGP's continued efforts to undermine such traditions should not go unnoticed. If Columbia wants to preserve its other institutions, it must continue to make its voice heard.

McKenzie Ditter

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Bun Penny To Close

We received an incredibly sad note Christmas Eve from the folks at Bun Penny in the mall. They are closing in the next few weeks after nearly 40 years in business; they can no longer afford the rents the mall's owner, General Growth Properties, is asking.

Bun Penny is a family owned business and its loss is another knock on the ability of small, independent institutions to survive in these parts.

Drop by soon and say goodbye.

We will.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas and happy holidays all. The Columbia Talk team is going to take a little break and unplug for a bit but not before we thank you all for stopping by. Keep those cards and letters coming. We really appreciate your thoughtful comments.

We'll be back in the new year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Arrest Made In Mall Thefts

From the HoCo P.D.:

Howard County Police arrested an Owings Mills man for breaking into cars at the Columbia Mall and stealing Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Tony Brown, 37, of 951 Joshua Tree Ct., was apprehended yesterday after a witness reported seeing him break the window of a car in the parking lot.

Since Nov. 30, police have received 23 reports of GPS units and other property being stolen from cars at the mall. Brown has been charged in the two cases reported yesterday and is considered a suspect in the other cases while police continue to investigate.

The witness in yesterday’s case contacted police and provided the suspect’s vehicle description and tag number to officers. Police stopped the car, a black Honda Accord, on I-70 and saw multiple GPS units on the front passenger seat. It was later determined the property had been stolen from two different vehicles in the mall parking lot.

Brown has been charged with theft and destruction of property. Police are investigating Brown’s possible involvement in the other thefts at the mall, as well as in other local counties.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mass Transit Mass Development

We've often wondered why Howard County hasn't done more to capitalize on mass transit. Then we read in the Flier this week that there's a plan afoot to turn the parking lot next to the Savage MARC commuter rail station into a major commercial and residential development.

"The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a measure Dec. 12 to allow the state to donate the lot to Annapolis-based developer Petrie Ross Ventures LLC, which is slated to build a mixed-use community at the rail stop that state officials are hailing as a new model of "smart growth" development," the Flier reported.

"However, the project will not move forward until Howard County approves a plan to create a special taxing district that would target revenue from property taxes collected at the development to pay for a parking garage at the site, said Phillip Ross, owner and president of Petrie Ross Ventures."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Why We Carol

We were listening to Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" this week when he launched into a story about where the word "caroling" came from. It seems a young girl named Carol went missing in London in 1888, and friends and family were flying about knocking on every door they could to find out if anyone knew anything about her disappearance. The problem was, Jack the Ripper was on the loose, and many people were reluctant to open their doors to strangers. So people started to sing Christmas songs to show they were friendly -- hence the tradition of "caroling" was born.

How creepy!. But was Bob pulling our leg?

We found this on the Web site of Minnesota public radio, in a 2006 posting by John Zech:

".....Total poppycock...one of those "just so" stories, like "plucking the yew," which find favor with a gullible public.

"My research (aka "googling") indicates the word "carol" comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. As the dance spread through Europe it caught on big time in France where it became "caroller," a circle dance accompanied by singers. Originally, carols were performed on many occasions during the year, but by the 17th century the carols evolved into songs associated primarily with Christmas.

"You can find the stories behind a lot of the famous carols at this website from the U.K."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slow Growth

Another sign of the slowing development market?

The Howard County Council is asking lots of questions about a proposal to move county offices into one floor of a proposed office building in Oakland Mills. The developer, according to this story in the Sun, says "the delay in government approval of the purchase of 15,000 square feet of office space is hurting his ability to sign other buyers, who are worried the county might back out."

Olusola Seriki, a principal in Metroventures Inc., the office building's developer, is a former village resident and a former Rouse Co. official. The Sun reported that he needs to sell about half of the 60,000-square-foot building to get construction financing. (His own firm plans to move to Columbia from Baltimore and occupy 5,200 square feet of office space--so that leaves about 10,000 square feet he still needs to fill just to keep the project on track.)

Projects like this are becoming harder and harder to do, as worries grow that economy is slowing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Keep An Eye On Those Presents

WBAL channel 11 has a short clip on thieves stealing presents from cars at the mall. Police have extra patrols going, including undercover operations. The Sun reported earlier this month that the department stations an additional 10 to 15 officers at the mall during the holidays.

But you can never be too careful.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bust Goes The Holiday Budget

Every year, we go through the same holiday shopping rituals. We start way early and snag the large or hard-to-find items at reasonable prices, in an orderly fashion, and then sit back in smug contentment and rest on our laurels....

Until this week, when we suddenly panic over the realization there are still stockings to fill, friends to remember, pets to reward.

And bust goes the budget...

So we'd thought we'd pass on this calendar reminder from the Columbia Association, and wish they had something like this for the bigger boys and girls among us.

The Columbia Association and the Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County are joining together to host a Junior Achievement Economics for Success program, titled Money Matters Club: Young Energetic Savvy. This is a seven-week program for sixth, seventh and eighth-grade girls. Young women will be introduced to various skills, interests and values that will aid them in making healthy education, career and personal finance decisions in the future.

Classes will meet every Tuesday from 4 to 5pm at the Columbia Teen Center beginning January 8. To register, please call (410) 992-3726.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Poinsettia Tree Returns!


It's the Miracle of Little Patuxent Parkway. Now here's a Christmas story we can retell our children for generations to come.

Give a read to WaPo columnist Marc Fisher's account today:

Columbia's beloved Poinsettia Tree will blossom again next Christmas.

Sentiment and the voice of the people beat out the forces of marketing and management as the owners of The Mall in Columbia, who this fall scrapped the 36-year tradition of putting up a 20-foot-tall metal frame festooned with 685 potted poinsettia plants, announced yesterday that the past is now as important as the future.

Forty-eight hours after mall manager Karen Geary said the tree "doesn't define the community," her new boss, Greg Hamm, who started work this week, announced that "we need to respect the past while also embracing future opportunity."

Hamm, who is heading up General Growth Properties' ambitious plan for a new Town Center in Columbia, did a full 180 from the company's position earlier in the week, which was that even though residents complained vociferously about the loss of their cherished holiday tradition, the decision to do away with the tree was final.

"I'm just overwhelmed," said Claire Lea, an organizer of a protest at the mall that drew a couple of hundred people Sunday. "They've demonstrated some respect for the community's voice, which can be strong. I had planned for this fight to be my activity for the next year. Now I'll have to look for something else to do."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Poinsettia Protest


Who says Columbians got no passion? Just try messin' with their poinsettia tree. WaPo columnist Marc Fisher says a couple hundred folks bearing poinsettia plants showed up at the mall this past weekend to express their displeasure over the mall's decision to dispense with the holiday tradition.

Mall Senior General Manager Karen Geary "agreed to meet with a delegation of Tree lovers," Fisher writes. "But the meeting didn't move her. The mall has given away The Tree's steel frame, which is now decorated with lights as part of the Symphony of Lights show that benefits Howard County General Hospital. Geary says the mall is " donating the money it used to spend on The Tree to Habitat for Humanity."

" 'The Poinsettia Tree doesn't define the community,' she said. 'The people define the community.'

" But the people want their Poinsettia Tree back. That's something Geary should understand.

" 'I remember when I was a kid,' she said, 'and we would go from Milwaukee to Chicago to go put our noses to the windows of Marshall Field's on State Street and look at the wonderful displays, and look at the Christmas trees in the Walnut Room and in the atrium. Well, now there are escalators in that atrium.'

" She paused, and then, to her credit, told the rest of her story:

" 'The Walnut Room still has the tree, even though it's now Macy's. I can close my eyes and see the big tree now.' "

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Columbia Ain't Worth What It Once Was

At least that's what the town's big developer, General Growth Properties, says in a new release, according to this story in the Sun.

The company said is writing down the value of the land it owns in these parts because of the housing slump. It said unsold residential land in Columbia and Laurel is now worth $141 million. The Sun says the company last reported the value of unsold Columbia residential lots at $225 million, as of the end of 2006.

GGp bought the Rouse Co., the original developer of this town. Here's a link to the GGP release.

Toll Lanes For The Power Grid

They are coming, in the form of something called "smart" meters. Local utilities are experimenting with new gadgets that allow companies to charge more during times of peak power use and less when consumption is down, according to this story in WaPo.

Baltimore Gas & Electric plans to start testing advanced meters in 5,000 Maryland homes in April, including some in Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

The idea is that you'll save money if you wait to do the laundry at night instead of in the afternoon when the AC is cranking because of all the global warming outside.

Recent studies have argued that the grid is overtaxed and brownouts may be in our future if new sources of power do not come on line or consumption ebbs. Some policymakers fear the day, not so far in the future, when everyone comes home on a hot afternoon and immediately wants to plug in their electric car so its ready to roll the following day.

Talk about a meltdown.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Go Team!

Howard County high schools collected nine state championships this fall, five of which were snagged by River Hill.

They must be drinking some special water on the west side of Columbia.

River Hill was crowned state champs in 2A football, boys and girls soccer, and boys and girls cross country.

Glenelg claimed titles in 1A boys cross country and girls soccer.

Howard was tops in 3A girls cross country and Reservoir won honors in 3A girls volleyball.

All told, the nine titles represented the most in county history.

Monday, December 10, 2007

River Hill Loses A Little Green

The Sun had an interesting story over the weekend about county's reforestation requirements. It seems a developer cut down a stand for a new 11-home subdivision near River Hill and then replaced them with trees planted far away near Howard's border with Carroll and Frederick counties.

The new trees "are to be planted on the 130-acre Talley Farm in Woodbine, where John Talley has agreements with about a half-dozen developers to allow planting to meet reforestation requirements," the Sun reported. Talley's on-site landscape company handles the work.

" 'I can understand why a homeowner would like to see a tree put back in their backyard,' Talley said. 'But we're talking about environmental issues and water quality that affects all of us. In reality, the people of River Hill are benefiting from the trees planted on our farm. The trees are producing oxygen and absorbing carbon monoxide from all the cars.' "

Who needs shade and natural beauty anyways?

Friday, December 7, 2007

No Foie Gras For You

Don't tell the boss, but we're skipping out of work a little early tonight for an annual tradition: Ellicott City's Midnight Madness. We don't want to miss Santa on the firetruck or a chance to do a little late night shopping. We always fortify ourselves for the excursion with a stop at Tersiguel's, and this year will be no different.

So it was with interest we read a story in Flier about Tersiguel's decision to stop serving its pate de foie gras. It seems animal rights activists have been roaming the county threating to protest outside various restaurants until they stop serving the dish. Steve Wecker, the owner at Iron Bridge Wine Co., says he also took foie gras off his menu.

The activists "claim that the delicacy is cruel to geese because it involves a process in which the birds are force-fed to fatten their livers, then slaughtered," according to the newspaper.

Evidently a small metal funnel is involved.

Well...we don't know if this is a case of the food police gone wild or what, but we're thinking we might just order a salad tonight.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Route 29 Squeeze

Every morning, before we head off to the day job in Washington, we fire up the XM Radio to get the traffic report. Depending on what we hear, we head south on I-95 or take Route 29. We've had pretty good luck.

Coming home is a different matter. The traffic reports are less reliable. And there's always the unpredictability of the Route 29 squeeze, the section north of Johns Hopkins to Route 32, where for some inexplicable reason the state's award-winning traffic planners decided it was a good idea to take a lane away.

The last three times we have traveled this route we have passed accidents; yesterday was no different. Once a fender bender happened right beside us. It's far from a safe situation, you lose a lane on the left and have cars merging on the right.

We'd love to see the accident statistics for that stretch of road.

We recall reading somewhere that there are plans on the books to fix it, several years hence. But why did the county go along with it in the first place? Does anyone know?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Playing Field Shortage

No one is more excited than Team Talk about the prospects for a new regional park over in our neck of the world, at the old Blandair farm in east Columbia. We are heavy users of athletic facilities of all shapes and sizes, and we have paid mightily for the privilege over the years in fees and sweat equity, raking infields, lining soccer fields and setting up nets etc.

But...

Some of the comments we read in this Examiner story got us thinking. Is there really a shortage? Define shortage.

On any given weekend we drive by schools and parks with unused fields. Maybe some are not as nice as others, but there's no reason they could not be made to be. The Oakland Mills High School baseball field is shaping up to be a pretty little field, thanks to boosters who built dugouts, school system investment, and lots of care and feeding. It's a scene repeated at several high schools around the county.

So here's our question. In a time of changing economic circumstances, when everyone is bracing for a prolonged housing slowdown, is it better to build new stuff or take super care of all we have, to protect the investment we have already made in our neighborhoods?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sheraton Columbia Gets A Makeover

Interstate Hotels & Resorts, one of the nation's largest independent hotel operators, has purchased the Sheraton Columbia for $46.5 million.

The Arlington company says it will immediately begin a $12 million renovation of the property, including upgrades to all guest rooms and public spaces. The renovation is expected to be completed by the end of 2008, according to a release.

Two. Four. Six. Eight. What Do We Ban-At-The-Gate?

The Howard County school system has officially banned outside food and beverages from high school gyms and stadiums, the Sun reports.

The effort is aimed at preventing kids from sneaking in alcohol, and many schools have already imposed their own restrictions. The difference now is that it is countywide policy.

You can still buy stuff from the boosters.

And the athletes, thank goodness, can still bring their Gatorade.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Does Blogging Hurt Community?

The Flier last week pulled together an impressive package of stories about what people think our fair town these days. One that seemed to stay with us profiled CA Board member Pearl Atkinson-Stewart.

Here's the passage that caught our eye:

"Rouse designed Columbia's village centers, pathway system, neighborhood pools, interfaith centers -- even its shared mailboxes -- in such a way as to encourage face-to-face encounters between residents.

"But that intimacy might be lost as people focus more of their attention on technology and cars instead of neighbors and community, said Atkinson-Stewart, who lives in Owen Brown.

"For example, people today prefer to voice their opinions and concerns in blogs rather than speaking to one another, as they used to, she said. Residents also are concerned about crime and therefore tend to spend less time interacting with neighbors."

The first time we read that we nodded our head in knowing agreement. We recognized something about ourselves there. There can be a detachment in all this electronic communication. And surely, the blogosphere can be a rough place at times, the very antithesis of civility in Howard.

But the more we thought about it, the more we realized how much blogging has allowed us to re-engage in our community. Our mailbox is now full of notices about Christmas cookie swaps, movie nights and blogger meet-ups (we really really do want to get out to one of those, we promise!)We converse regularly with neighbors we might never have met before. We hear different viewpoints.

Plenty of bloggers out there working very hard to build community -- just spending a little time tooling around the pages of Hometown Columbia, as an example.

Sometimes being online is the best way to discover the world offline.

Friday, November 30, 2007

More Charges In High School Brawl

From today's WaPo:

By Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

A second young man accused of participating in a February brawl that left an 18-year-old dead outside a high school in Ellicott City has been charged with assault, the Howard County state's attorney's office said yesterday.

Corey M. Lehnhoff, 18, is alleged to have assaulted two people with an aluminum baseball bat and punched another person during the late-night fight outside Mount Hebron High School.

Lehnhoff, who, according to his attorney, was a friend of the teen who died, appeared to be an instigator of the brawl, charging documents state.

The fight involved about 20 young men, most connected to Mount Hebron or Hammond High School in Columbia. Robert Brazell Jr. of Ellicott City was fatally injured when he was struck in the head with an aluminum bat.

Kevin F. Klink, who graduated last year from Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, was charged with murder. His case is scheduled for trial in February.

Lehnhoff, of Ellicott City, and Brazell "were close friends, best friends" and had been students at Mount Hebron, said Lehnhoff's attorney, Joe Murtha.

"Now the focus has gone from Kevin Klink for being responsible and an aggressor to the people who may have been with Robby Brazell that evening," Murtha said.

Lehnhoff was indicted Wednesday and charged with two counts of first-degree assault, two counts of carrying a dangerous weapon and other counts, said Wayne Kirwan, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office.

Before the fight started, Lehnhoff, "out in front of a group of males, ripped off his shirt, approached an opposing male and began arguing. This act began the brawl that consisted of about twenty males," the charging documents state.

One witness said that Lehnhoff was "the biggest fight participant" in one of the groups and that Lehnhoff and Brazell "were standing in the front of the group of males that made up the opposing group," according to the documents.

Lehnhoff, who was 17 when the incident occurred, was charged as an adult.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

College Angst

Here at Talk central, we find ourselves obsessing over college these days. Ma Talk is in the final stretch of her masters, the Talk kids are beginning to assess their choices, and Pa Talk still has this recurring nightmare where he is sitting all over again for the big Calculus III test with absolutely no idea about how answer the questions.

So this story in the Sun caught our eye. It seems today's ambitious teen spends many late nights and weekends completing as many as 12 applications or more with the help of "lots of coffee."

Yikes!

Technology is part to blame. Many colleges allow people to apply online and they use a common form. We even heard a Podcast lately touting the benefits of the "social media" application, one where you add links to your Web pages and sports highlight reels on YouTube. (But don't forget to scrub the MySpace page!)

For Pa Talk, that's enough to spur some more nightmares....

But there is at least one college trend we believe can't come fast enough. Check out this story in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

"Colleges are moving to eliminate -- or at least ease -- student debt as pressure builds in Washington for them to spend more from their endowments to help families afford the rising cost of school.

"This month, Williams College announced that it will eliminate loans from all financial-aid packages beginning next school year and replace them with grants. Amherst College recently announced a similar initiative. And Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., began this fall replacing loans with grants and student employment.

"Other schools are stopping short of getting rid of loans entirely, but are still finding new ways to minimize debt, at least for some students. Colby College, a private college in Waterville, Maine, announced this month that it will eliminate loans for Maine residents starting next fall. Beginning with next year's freshmen, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., will eliminate loans for its neediest undergraduates and reduce debt by an average of 35% for all other students on aid.

"And this year, Emory University in Atlanta announced its 'Emory Advantage' program, which eliminates loans for undergraduate students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year, while capping total loan volume at $15,000 over four years for families with income of up to $100,000."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Triple-A County

Wanna know what Wall Street thinks about Howard County? One of the major bond rating services, Fitch, rates HoCo's latest bond offer AAA. Fitch is like Standard & Poor's or Moody's. A higher rating means the county can borrow money cheaper.

Here's its analysis:

"The 'AAA' rating reflects Howard County's deep and diverse economy, strong financial management, affluent residents and a moderate and rapidly retired debt burden. The county's financial position is strong, with ample liquidity, sound general fund reserves above the charter-mandated level, and excellent financial planning. Current and projected tax-supported debt levels are affordable.

"Howard County's relative affluence, high quality of life, excellent schools, and proximity to both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. have resulted in continued strong demand for housing and related commercial expansion. Repeatedly listed as one of the best places to live in popular magazines, the county controls its growth, limiting new housing units to 1,850 annually and placing 10% of its land under permanent farmland preservation easements. Further growth is anticipated as recent Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) recommendations will bring the Defense Information Systems Agency and other Defense departments' activities to Ft. Meade, in adjacent Anne Arundel County. Assessed valuation growth has been solid, averaging 10.0% annually since fiscal 2000; Fitch anticipates that the county's assessment process will shelter it, at least in part, from market declines over the next few fiscal years. Residential employment remains strong, with the September 2007 unemployment rate of 2.7% comfortably below the state's 3.6% and the nation's 4.7%. Wealth and income indicators are high, with per capita personal income 25% above state and 53% above national averages.

"Financial operations are stable after a difficult recessionary period, during which the loss of capital gains and bonus income severely eroded income tax collections. Strong financial management increased the fiscal 2007 unreserved general fund balance to $67.3 million, representing a high 9.2% of spending, from a negligible $307,500, or 0.1% of spending, in fiscal 2003. The county has restored the general fund charter reserve to 7% of the prior year's audited expenditures and is increasing its pay-as-you-go funding for capital needs. In fiscal 2007, the county designated $15 million of its fund balance to fund its obligations for healthcare and other post-employment benefits."

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Poinsettia Tree Is No More

We missed the real news about the Santastic display at the mall. It replaced the traditional poinsettia tree that's been a staple of holidays past for more than 30 years, according to this story in the Flier.

The mall folks apparently donated the wire frame to the symphony of lights for its outdoor display, sans plants of course.

Which doesn't seem quite the same somehow.

Anyway, the mall's move made history, according to this e-mail from the folks in town center.

"History is all around us – even in what we call a new town. Columbia Archives Manager Barbara Kellner will share the story of some historic treasures in a slide show tour on Tuesday, December 11 at 7pm at Historic Oakland in Columbia.

"The program will highlight Columbia’s ties to its agrarian past and the world of horse racing. It will also include some of Columbia’s more recent history including the recent demise of a long-time Columbian tradition, the Poinsettia Tree at the Mall in Columbia.

"The program is free, but registration is encouraged. For more information and to register, please contact Barbara Kellner at Columbia.Archives@ColumbiaAssociation.com or call 410.715.3103. Historic Oakland is located at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia."

Friday, November 23, 2007

Synthetic Space

Howard County plans to use state open space money to cover some of its ballfields in artificial turf, at more than $500,000 a pop, according to this story in WaPo.

The first fields to get the plastic stuff are out in the Western Regional Park.

Folks around here seem cool with the idea. There's already plenty of synthetic fields over at SAC's soccer park. But WaPo says "artificial-turf fields have stirred opposition recently in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts, where activists say the rubber pellets might release harmful chemicals into the air or rainwater.

"The turf industry has responded that its products are safe and that they help the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer."

Gary Arthur of the Recreation and Parks Department told WaPo that the county's old grass fields were routinely spoiled by overuse.

"We quickly found out, as the population increased and participation increased," Arthur said, "that we weren't able to keep natural turf on the field, and it became basically dirt." That led to puddles, divots and, inevitably, to crazy bounces and sprained ankles.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Tax Package Comes Home

WaPo says in this story that residents "who buy new cars, smoke cigarettes and get their computers fixed will be among the hardest hit" by the tax package approved by the General Assembly this week.

Computers fixed?

"The lion's share of new revenue is generated by the state sales tax, which will increase from 5 percent to 6 percent. The sales tax will be applied to computer services, which are now exempt, a move estimated to raise about $214 million."

A 6 percent sales tax means Amazon and other online retailers just got cheaper.

The tax on your smokes will go up from $1 per pack to $2. The corporate income tax will climb from 7 percent to 8.25 percent. The titling tax on your car will go from 5 percent to 6 percent.

Income taxes will go up for the wealthier among us. Currently, everyone pays a flat 4.75 percent rate on income above $3,000. Under the new plan, single filers reporting more than $150,000 income and joint filers reporting more than $200,000 in income will be taxed at progressively higher rates.

After all the revenue adjustments, Howard will see state aid grow by $6.6 million to $273.3 million in fiscal 2009, according to a chart in WaPo. But all you will hear is complaints that we are "losing" $8.8 million that we had hoped to get on top of that.

This from the Sun: "The final General Assembly votes left another $550 million in cuts for O'Malley to make in the fiscal 2009 budget that he is to propose in January, which also concerns local officials.

'We think the cuts are about $9 million or $10 million, but that's before the governor spells out the $550 million. I'm assuming some portion of that will come from counties,' said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Eraser Man


This brought a smile to the globally minded team at Columbia Talk:

Columbia's WR Grace got a little cultural lesson when it tried to introduce Eraser Man to China, according to this story in the trade Industry Week.

"Eraser Man seemed like a harmless gimmick to promote lean manufacturing throughout the global operations of Columbia, Md.-based W.R. Grace & Co. The pink eraser mascot was supposed to convey a simple message: eradicate or 'erase' waste. But when the $2.8 billion specialty chemicals manufacturer introduced Eraser Man during a focus-group session in China, the company's Asian staff was perplexed and perhaps a little miffed. That's because in China, erase actually means invisible.

" 'They said, "Do you really want this program to be invisible?" '" recalls Michael Piergrossi, W.R. Grace's vice president of human resources. 'Of course, the answer is, "no."'

"Also at issue was the color pink. 'Pink is just not an acceptable color in China; it's feminine. No self-respecting man would want to be associated with a program that's marked by the color pink,' Piergrossi explains."

All is well now. Eraser Man is now tan and employees in China are asked to "simplify" or "reduce" rather than erase, the magazine said.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Scary Santa

Here at Columbia Talk, our favorite photo of our visit with the shopping mall Santa is young Talk's absolutely terrified look while spending time on Kris's lap. Sooo cute! Of course, at the time, his parents were not so pleased. They wanted the happy lad to pour out his hopes and dreams and revel in the wonderment of Christmas, all to be captured for the grandparents by the elves' cameras.

Ah, those were simple times.

Now, we have Santastic. Starting today, you just don't visit Santa at the mall, you walk through peppermint-scented falling snow, mail your letter to the North Pole, and try your luck on the Naughty or Nice meter, all before getting your chance to meet the big guy.

Wow. Now that's scary.

The mall parade to kick off the season starts at 5p tonight and Mr. Claus arrives around 5:30p, according to the schedule posted on the Web site. (Find the rest of the schedule here (pdf))

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Calling Columbia Vets

We say this note in the Examiner:

The Howard County Library is seeking veterans to interview for its This Is Your Life project, a countywide initiative that encourages residents 50 and older to record their personal histories.

The Columbia Archives will preserve the interviews in its permanent collection.

Veterans interested in participating should check out this link.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Will The Tower Ever Be Built?

The developer, WCI Communities, tells the Sun yes, but the company recently reported a quarterly loss of nearly $70 million (compared to an $11 million profit a year earlier) and the chief executive says ominously in this SEC filing that during the quarter "we experienced higher tower defaults and increased our reserves for future tower defaults."

The company has already laid off more than 575 employees as part of a company-wide belt-tightening, and it considered whether to sell itself. In this filing, the company says it is in discussions with its lenders and could lose financing under certain credit agreements because of deteriorating conditions in the housing market.

Here's some excerpts:

"The most significant impact to our third quarter operations occurred in our tower homebuilding division which experienced a $209.1 million and $87.7 million decline in revenues and gross margin, respectively. Tower defaults in certain of our buildings that began delivering units in 2007 have been higher than our average default rate experienced prior to 2007. The tower unit default rate was approximately 1%-2% prior to 2006, 7% during 2006 and 26% for the nine months ended September 30, 2007."

"The continuing deterioration of conditions in the markets in which we operate has had, and will likely continue to have for an extended period of time, a negative impact on our liquidity and our ability to comply with financial and other covenants under our bank loans and indentures. Some of the factors which have adversely affected us include, but are not limited to, declines in new home orders; significant increase in cancellations, defaults and rescission claims and lawsuits; increased use of incentives and discounts; reduced margins; significant tower project delays and increased interest and insurance costs; general contractor financial instability; and credit rating downgrades. All of these factors, and others which may arise in the future, have adversely impacted, and will likely continue to adversely impact our financial condition."

"With little or no visibility as to when market conditions are likely to improve, we have been taking steps to reduce costs to partially offset variances caused by the current unfavorable business environment. We are continuing to reduce overhead, improving operating efficiency, and implementing practices to reduce construction costs. The Company announced a restructuring of its operations to combine the traditional homebuilding and tower operations to enhance efficiencies. In addition, we have reduced land purchases and development activities. All of these measures are focused on maximizing cash flow and paying down debt. Although no assurance can be given, we expect to realize approximately $200-$450 million of cash flow from operating activities and approximately $10 million of cash flow from investing activities in 2007, generated primarily from the collection of tower receivables and proceeds from traditional home closings, land and recreational amenity sales."

"If conditions in the homebuilding industry worsen in the future, we may be required to evaluate additional homes and communities which may result in additional impairment charges and such charges could be significant."

Ouch.

It's no secret that developers of all stripes are rethinking their plans because of the current turmoil in the mortgage and broader credit markets.If WCI completes it Plaza Residences in downtown Columbia, it will be threading a needle.

Here's the full text of CEO Jerry Starkey's statement:

“Demand continues to be unpredictable from week to week and we saw an increase in defaults and cancellations during the third quarter. We are focused on reducing our costs of operation and recently announced a restructuring that we expect will enable us to lower our annual salary and benefit expenses by about $46 million. As a part of this restructuring, we have combined geographic regions and retained the top talent capable of taking on expanded roles and responsibility during this downturn. During the quarter, we experienced higher tower defaults and increased our reserves for future tower defaults. This resulted in revenue and earnings reversals and had a negative impact on our financial performance during the period. We also wrote down our traditional and tower inventory to reflect impairments caused by expected lower prices and slower absorption in some product lines. While lower demand and increased defaults have severely hampered our earnings, we continue to expect significant cash flow in the fourth quarter to result in about $210 million to $460 million of cash flow for the full year ($200 million to $450 million from operating activities and $10 million from investing activities). The Company’s expected cash flow from operations includes 275 to 300 traditional homes closings in the fourth quarter. The backlog of 591 traditional homes as of September 30, 2007 includes 273 homes scheduled to close by year end.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

River Hill Traffic Alert

From the folks at the River Hill village center....

A County water and sewer construction project will affect a 200-foot length of Trotter Road immediately north of the roundabout at Southwind Circle in Columbia and Clarksville beginning on or about Monday, November 26. The area will be temporarily closed to traffic during the hours of 9:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. during construction. Weather permitting the project should be completed within six calendar days.

Suggested detours will include Maryland Route 108 and Great Star Drive. Signs will be posted to advise motorists of the construction and alternate routes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nature Stories

Two stories caught our eye this weekend.

One was by WaPo outdoors writer Angus Phillips on the hunter who bagged two deer during the managed hunt at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area near Clarksville. The hunter happened across the buck of a lifetime and a nervous doe, but under the rules of engagement, had to shoot the doe first (for population control reasons).

"Sure enough, the buck ran away, but, 'I thought he might come back, so I stayed real still,' " the hunter told Phillips. " 'Sure enough, he went off about 80 yards, then five minutes later he came back. I guess he was just so infatuated with her, he couldn't believe it was over.' "

Poor lovestruck devil.

The other was a Sun piece about the discovery on a West Friendship farm of what it believed to be the largest big-leaf magnolia in the nation.

"Although not especially tall, the tree is notable for its huge leaves and flowers. The soft green leaves might be up to 30 inches long, while the aromatic white flowers might be a foot wide," the Sun say.

The Magnolia macrophylla's "measurements are being sent to American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization that catalogs the largest specimens of 826 species of native and naturalized trees in the country, which will determine the national champions, said American Forests Executive Director Deborah Gangloff.

"The Washington, D.C.-based group has been documenting big trees since 1940, when it adopted a program originally developed by Fred W. Besley, Maryland's state forester from 1906 to 1942."

The Sun's keeping the tree's location secret at the request of the landowners.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Talk TV: And Now For Sports....

There's a new sports team in town...say hello to DigitalSports Inc., a Columbia firm that is trying to provide an online home for coverage of high school and club sports. Think MySpace blended with local TV for the athletic set.

This is an increasingly competitive business around the Washington area, and the country, and no one has really won over the HoCo market yet. Even WaPo is trying to get in on the act. Here's an example of what the newspaper is doing in Loudoun.

The DigitalSports guys say they want to provide big-time coverage of local games while allowing users to post their own blogs and video clips and creating some revenue-sharing opportunities for teams.

Here's a link from DigitalSports to get a flavor.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Flu Shots on TV

We're trying something new here. WJZ-13 lets you embed its video in your site...Bear with the commercial at the start, its short..

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Rest In Peace Doc

At WaPo, we've started a new feature in our Post Mortem blog called the Daily Goodbye, a roundup of notable obituaries around the country.

Here's our Columbia contribution for the day, courtesy of the Sun.

Leslie S. "Doc" Feldman, a pharmacist who once owned drugstores in Long Reach and Dorsey's Search, died of cancer Oct. 31 at his Columbia home, according to this obit. He was 63.

After graduating from Temple University, he "moved to Maryland, where he worked for several pharmacies before opening Long Reach Village Pharmacy in Columbia in 1974. He owned and operated Feldman's Medical Center Pharmacy and Feldman's Dorsey Hall Pharmacy, both in Columbia, and Feldman's Pharmacy in Ellicott City.

"Mr. Feldman stopped working last year because of illness; he had just completed the sale of his drugstores last week.

"That was what he was waiting for," said his wife of 41 years, the former Stefanie Dan."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Grocery Game Of Chicken

We're on food overload here at Columbia Talk. We're newly minted Costco members, and made our first foray to Trader Joe's. We're trying to stay loyal to our neighborhood Food Lion and still have a hankering for the produce at Produce Galore and MOM's. Then there's David's Natural Market, a rebate check to cash from BJ's, dog treats to pick up at Target and Wal-Mart, and our monthly visit to Lets Dish.

And Wegmans is not even here yet!

Something has got to give. But it made us wonder: Why is a low-margin, fiercely competitive business like the grocery business suddenly so hot? Perhaps the chains are learning something from Perdues of the world. People will pay you more for the parts they want than they will for the whole chicken. Specialize in a segment of the market, say organics or bulk products, and you can steal part of a mainstream grocer's most profitable customers.

At least until we all get too tired of hitting five different stores for the food -- and prices -- we want.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Speeders On Camera

Former HoCo exec and police chief, Jim Robey, is now a state senator. His latest legislative initiative (pdf): He wants to give the county the right to install cameras to catch speeders. If your pic is snapped, you'll be mailed a $75 ticket. The proposed law doesn't spell out how fast is too fast, but the ticket will be treated like a parking ticket and drivers will not be assessed any points.

If you can prove you weren't driving, then you can get out of the ticket but you'll have to rat out who was behind the wheel.

Montgomery already has such cameras and assesses a $45 ticket.

Proceeds are earmarked exclusively for public safety programs.

"A similar, statewide speed-camera bill passed legislative muster in 2003, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.," according to this story in the Sun.

The proposal is just one of several the local delegation is going to take up as it prepares for next year's session of the General Assembly.

"The delegation has scheduled a hearing for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 in the County Council's chambers in Ellicott City to hear from the public on the bills," the Sun says. They are available for viewing here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Judging The Judges II

The Flier has come to the rescue. In our afternoon paper we found a story about who these candidates are for circuit court judge. There's a brief recitation of the four applicants' careers and short, short interviews with all but Ricardo Daniel Zwaig, who apparently could not be reached for comment....

Zwaig practices law in Ellicott City somewhere, anyone know him? Perhaps we could fill out the record some.

Also, we see the Sun had a story this morning to at least get the names on record. But really we see more coverage of Columbia council members and school board types than members of the judiciary. The four candidates are seeking to replace Dennis Sweeney, who is retiring.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Judging The Judges

Not just anyone can be a judge. You have to be screened by a nominating commission. Here's a link to a state site explaining the process, and a list of the contenders for a circuit court post being vacated by His Honor Dennis Sweeney, who is retiring after 16 years on the bench.

The judicial branch is one of the least covered branches of government -- the focus is usually on the accused or the prosecutors or the victims. A story in the Examiner is a good example. It focuses on the process but says precious little about the four applicants who are still in the running for what will be a 15-year appointment by the governor. They include two prosecutors (HoCo State's Attorney Timothy McCrone and senior assistant state's attorney Mary Murphy), a chancery judge in juvenile court (Marlys Elaine Patrick), and an attorney with a firm specializing in criminal defense work (Ricardo Zwaig).

An October story in the Flier spent more time on the background of the retiring judge than on the people who could soon be making life-changing rulings, but at least the paper is trying to stir some interest.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Holiday Shopping and The $348 Laptop

It used to be that holiday shopping began the day after Thanksgiving. Then, online shoppers started getting a jump on the season, doing their buying on turkey day. Now comes Wal-Mart, which is starting its super sales super early, a jumpstart other merchants are sure to follow.

To wit, tomorrow the mega-retailer will reveal what hot items it is putting on deep discounts on Friday. Cue TV B-roll of nutty people fighting in the aisles. You can see a peek at one of the offers, a $348 laptop (1 gb ram!) right here.

We can only hope everyone will have spent all their money by the time the holiday season really gets here and there will be plenty of parking spaces at the mall.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Columbia's Little Vegas

There's always been a certain "charm" to the Route 1 corridor, what with its gritty mix of cut-rate motels, bingo halls, massage parlors, and, of course, the horse track at Laurel.

Now, the gov wants to add slot machines.

The Examiner says in this story that O'Malley's plan would bring to Laurel Park 4,250 of 15,000 slot machines statewide. The gov claims he wants the millions of dollars generated to pay for schools and save the horse industry.

Some Anne Arundel officials worry that the move could be a distraction to economic development efforts. But the executive director of the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce says she supports well-regulated slots as a last-resort remedy to improve the area.

“I’m more concerned about the infrastructure around the track, which is discouraging," Claire Louder told the paper. "Places like Biloxi, Miss., and Las Vegas seem to do just fine.”

Now there's a vision for downtown Columbia.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Toy Train Rivals Back On Track?

Just in time for the holidays, Columbia's toy train magnate, Mike Wolf, has apparently reached a settlement with Lionel over stolen train designs and other mischief.

Here's what WaPo had to say:

"Century-old Lionel of Chesterfield, Mich., and MTH Electric Trains of Columbia have forged a tentative agreement to settle a multimillion-dollar, seven-year-old lawsuit over allegations that Lionel stole train designs from MTH.

"The dispute focuses on a patented computerized technology that synchronizes the sound, smoke and speed of the locomotives as they zoom and puff around the track. The technology is critical to the two companies as they seek a leg up on each other in a small market and try to remake one of America's favorite pastimes for the 21st century.

"The settlement should allow Lionel, one of the enduring brands of the 20th century, to escape bankruptcy protection, which it entered while fighting MTH's claims for roughly $88 million.

MTH founder Mike Wolf told WaPo the settlement is contingent on resolving several other issues. "It's not over until it's over," Wolf said. "We don't like each other. It's personal. It's been very difficult."

Friday, October 26, 2007

But Will The Nurses Be On Roller Skates?

The Flier says HoCo will be offering free flu shots to anyone who drives up to a county clinic at the Gateway Business Park on Nov. 4.

They'll poke you while you are sitting in your car!

"The event is designed to both deliver flu vaccines to residents and test the county's capabilities during an emergency event, such as a 'bird flu' outbreak," the newspaper says in this story.

A flu-shot drive-in reminds us of the days when it was a really family event to head up to the local Tops and order some burgers, fries and root beer and eat in the car. We know that sounds old hat to folks today, who not only eat in their car but talk on the phone, send e-mail, fix their makeup and such but it was a big event for a 9-year-old alllllll those years ago.

Details for the vaccine event can be found here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Putting the Ed Back In Driver's Ed

Getting a learner's permit now means you have to stay in school, according to this story in WaPo. Fortunately, all members of the Columbia Talk team are regular attendees...

"Educators and motor vehicle officials have teamed up to enforce a new state law that is the latest strategy to deter habitual truancy.

"The measure, which took effect Oct. 1, denies a learner's permit to students younger than 16 who have more than 10 unexcused absences during the prior school semester.

"Whether they are in public or private school or are home-schooled, teens must submit a certified, sealed school attendance form as part of their application. The MVA will not accept forms from students if they show evidence of tampering or alteration, agency spokesman Buel Young said. The law likely will affect thousands of teenagers, based on the fact that last budget year more than 14,500 16-year-olds received provisional driver's licenses.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Signs of the Times

No more touts for exotic diets and college kid movers?

HoCo is on a crusade. Folks are fanning out to crack down on all those little illegal signs that "pop up like dandelions" along our streets and byways, according to our fair county exec.

According to this story in the Sun, state and county highway workers are gathering up the unsightly distractions during a three-day roundup.

"Letters will be sent to first-time offenders. If inspectors continue to see an illegal sign, a written violation notice will follow. The sign owner will have 10 days to remove the sign before fines may be assessed. A first offense can cost $50 per sign per day, doubled for second offenders," the story said.

You can alert the authorities to signs you don't like by filling out a form here.

Former council member Lloyd Knowles wonders if the county will also go after all those semi-permanent office lease signs showing up with more regularity these days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Closure

One of our longtime local murder mysteries now has closure -- and police have arrested a pair of men in a series of recent robberies.

Paul Stephen Riggins Jr., now serving a life sentence for killing his wife more than a decade ago, has apparently revealed where he hid Nancy Lee's body. WaPo said he directed authorities to a site in Hanover, where remains were recovered. Police are awaiting DNA tests to determine conclusively.

Nancy vanished in 1996 and Riggins has steadfastly maintained that he had nothing to do with her disappearance. According to testimony at his 2001 trial, Nancy Lee had discovered he was having an affair with the family's teenage babysitter, and threatened to tell the girl's mother. Riggins told the girl he would "take care of it," according to this Sun account.

The newspaper speculates that Riggins may finally have come clean in hopes of gaining favor from the parole board. He is eligible to be released as early as 2016.

Meanwhile, the Sun reported that police have charged a man and a teenager in a shooting and three armed robberies that occurred this month around town.

"Shawn Timothy Crockett, 14, and Terrence Edward Boone, 24, both of Baltimore, have been charged in the Oct. 16 shooting of an Exxon station clerk during a robbery attempt in the 10100 block of Little Patuxent Parkway, across the street from Columbia Town Center, said Howard County police said in a statement.

"The two have also been charged with the Oct. 5 robbery of a 2-Go convenience store in the 9000 block of Washington Blvd. in Savage and the Oct. 11 robbery of the Harwood Convenience Store in the 6600 block of Washington Blvd. in Elkridge."

Monday, October 22, 2007

County Considers Office Space in Oakland Mills

HoCo Exec Ken Ulman is considering moving some of his government into a new office condominium building slated to go up on the site of an old gas station at the Oakland Mills Village Center, according to this story in the Sun.

The county would pay $4 million to buy one 15,000-square foot floor of the four-story building.

The developer of the project is currently courting tenants, saying Meridian Square's "modern yet classic design" makes for "the perfect business atmosphere."

What do you think...is that atmosphere helped or hindered by having government offices take up a quarter of the suites?

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Schools Talk About Staph

Here's a letter the school system sent out to parents. It would be nice if the county also included what it is doing to counter the problem. The Sun reported that "health officials have instructed school administrators to conduct regular, daily cleaning and disinfecting of 'common surfaces' such as tables in libraries, lockers and desks in classrooms."

October 18, 2007

Dear Parents,

There has been recent media attention regarding the bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, often referred to as “staph” and MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infections in the United States. MRSA is a type of staph that is resistant to some antibiotics. Many healthy people, carry staph, including MRSA, in their nose or on their skin and do not know they are carrying it. They usually do not get skin infections and do not have any signs or symptoms of illness. Sometimes staph can cause an infection and most of these skin infections are minor (such as pimples and boils) and can be treated without antibiotics. However, sometimes staph bacteria can cause serious infections. MRSA infections occur most frequently among persons in healthcare facilities who have weakened immune systems. Here and elsewhere in the country, MRSA infections are becoming more common in community settings, including schools and among athletes.

Staph, including MRSA, are spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, such as shaking hands, wrestling, or other direct contact with the skin of another person, or contaminated objects.

The symptoms of a staph or MRSA infection include pimples, boils, red/warm skin, or a wound that doesn’t heal. Most MRSA infections are treated by good wound and skin care. Sometimes treatment requires the use of antibiotics.

Routine cleaning procedures can reduce the transmission of staph or MRSA in the school setting, especially among users of athletic equipment. In addition the following have been shown to be effective in preventing spread:

* Clean hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand gel.
* Maintain good general hygiene with regular bathing.
* Keep wounds that are draining covered.
* Do not share items that may become contaminated such as towels, clothing, bar soap, razors, and athletic equipment that touches the skin.
* Launder clothing that has come into contact with wound drainage and dry thoroughly.
* If wounds are unable to be covered, refrain from activities that have skin to skin contact.
* Use a towel between skin and shared gym equipment
* Clean equipment and other environmental surfaces with which multiple individuals have contact with appropriate disinfectants.

Any questions or concerns may be directed to Donna Heller, Health Services Coordinator, 410 – 313-6812 or contact the Communicable Disease nurse at the Howard County Health department at 410-313-6110. More information may also be obtained, at www.cdc.gov.

Sincerely,

Donna Heller, RN, MHSA, CSN
Health Services Coordinator
Howard County Public School System

Maura Rossman, MD
Medical Director
Howard County Health Department

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Staph Scare

WaPo reports today that "as national estimates focus on an increase in serious infections caused by an antibiotic-resistant germ, officials in the Washington region have identified more than a dozen cases among students and are organizing extensive cleanups of numerous schools."

Including two at Wilde Lake High School.

"According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infection in the United States. A contaminated cut or scrape can become red, swollen or increasingly painful. The danger with MRSA is that it is often not correctly identified and treated with the right antibiotics, giving the germ a chance to become invasive."

"A report this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that serious incidences of this strain are far more frequent than previously thought. Every year in the United States, the researchers said, MRSA causes more than 94,000 acute infections and nearly 19,000 deaths."

According to the Sun: "Health officials have instructed school administrators to conduct regular, daily cleaning and disinfecting of 'common surfaces' such as tables in libraries, lockers and desks in classrooms.

"Howard school officials also plan to send a letter to parents in the wake of a second case of staph reported in less than a week at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia."

Here's a link to a Sun blog recounting what safety tips Wilde Lake administrators shared with parents when the first care was identified.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Filling The Gaps

The papers are full of stories today about Howard County's new initiative to offer health care to the uninsured for fees of as little as $50 a month.

The county estimates that about 20,000 people in the county are eligible, and that about 2,000 will probably take part the first year (at a cost of $2.8 million, coming from fees, $500,00 in county subsidies and the rest from donations).

The latest effort is an attempt to fill in the gaps in the confusing matrix of state, federal, and private insurance programs that exists today. Here at Columbia Talk Central we struggle with our own patchwork of company insurance, health care spending accounts, donut holes, co-pays, mail-in prescriptions, negotiated fees, in-plan providers, flexible spending accounts, lifetime maximums, etc etc etc. And somehow, each year when the enrollment forms come around, the cost of it all keeps going up.

Heaven knows how the less fortunate figure it all out. We're guessing they don't.

Such confusion is why companies like Steve Case's Revolution Health even exist, to help people navigate their choices, and that seems like perhaps one of the chief benefits of the county's new Healthy Howard effort...to provide a little guidance in how to manage the system and steer folks to affordable clinics and low-cost pharmacies when possible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Think Pink

Everywhere we look these days we see pink. The Soccer Association of Columbia just wrapped up its Think Pink fight against cancer weekend, prompting one member of the Talk team to join his teammates in coloring their hair for the occasion.

Lots of merchants have come up with tie-ins. For instance, Bailey Banks and Biddle, the mall jeweler, is selling a breast cancer awareness bracelet for $125 with $25 going to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

What events have you heard about?

Monday, October 15, 2007

What Would You Do With $500?

Howard County seniors saved an average of $539.73 by applying for a property tax break, according to this story in the Sun.

About 500 elderly homeowners "received a collective $272,563 in property tax breaks, and 300 others could still benefit, according to a report given to a citizens committee studying whether to make more changes in the Senior Tax Credit law."

The averages could change once the final tally is in, the paper says.

People age 70 and older who own their homes, have household incomes of less than $68,450 and assets of less than $500,000, excluding their homes, are eligible for a 25 percent property tax break from the county.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

If You Hurry, You Can Still Shred

Howard County Government Shredding Event

The County will be hosting a Shredding Event on October 13th, 2007 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Long Gate Park and Ride at Meadowbrook Park just off of Route 100 in Ellicott City. Residents may bring their documents (up to three bags or boxes) and watch them as they are shredded. Electronic storage devices (such as hard drives, discs, etc.) may also be brought to the event for destruction, but those will be destroyed offsite. If you have any questions, please call 410-313-6444 or e-mail help@howardcountyrecycles.org.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Hollywood on the Patuxent

It's beginning to dawn on us that we might have a budding video industry forming here.

First, we learned that HBO had been shooting scenes of "The Wire" at a soundstage here (after some urban explorer got caught urban exploring on the set).

And now we discover there is a real live cable channel based in our fair town. It's not quite ABC, NBC or one of those other major networks, but Retirement Living TV does have carriage deals with Comcast and DirecTV.

What is it, who's behind it?

"Retirement Living is television for Americans 55+. We inform you on topics including health, lifestyle, finance, and politics. We provide you with engaging stories about ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives. We inspire and involve you in order to improve your own life.

"Our roots are in Erickson Retirement Communities, the National Institutes of Health, non-profit research foundations, the University of Maryland's School of Aging Studies, and leading gerontologists across the country. We are the foremost experts on aging and seniors. We are the new voice of a generation under-served by the media industry. We hope to change not only the way you watch TV, but the way you live your life."

The company employs about 200, many of whom work in DC, New York, Hollywood and at a studio on the campus of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

This is not your grandmother's 55+ TV. This week's lineup features sex, drugs and rock n' roll!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Never Mind...

...about that Sun report claiming two 11-year-old boys were shot by pellet guns; the newspaper has since offered an update:

"Two 11-year-old Elkridge boys who reported that they were shot by a man with a pellet gun on their way to school last week lied about the attacks, Howard County police said yesterday.

"Police said they did not know what prompted the boys to fabricate the story. The boys admitted Monday night that the story was a hoax, police said."




Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Pellet Guns and Paintballs


The Sun has a story about two 11-year-old boys who were shot with a pellet gun at an Elkridge area bus stop on separate days last week, prompting authorities to step up patrols near Mayfield Woods Middle and Deep Run Elementary. The kids suffered minor injuries.

"The suspect is described as a young male with a thin build. He was wearing a black ski mask and camouflage," the story says.

The report reminded us of this notice that went out in River Hill recently:

"On Monday, October 1:
The occupants of a blue car shot paintballs at a jogger on Great Star. Later in the day the eighth grade classes at Clarksville Middle School were outside and students were participating on the fields, when four to five teenage boys in the woods shot paintballs at them. When one of the PE teachers went over toward the trees, the teenagers ran off. Both incidents were reported to the Police Department. The Police Department is continuing area checks in the community. Detectives assigned to the case are following leads ."

Anyone with information is asked to call police 410-313-3200.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Those Sneaky Kids

Seems some high schoolers have been sneaking in drinks they are too young to have, according to this story in the Sun. Howard High has joined Wilde Lake, Centennial and Atholton in prohibiting fans from bringing beverages to sporting events.

"The beverage ban, which applies to students and adults, allows fans to possess only beverages that have been purchased from concession stands," the story says.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Another Cable TV Company?

Cavalier Telephone has submitted an application to the county to sell cable television services here, competing with Comcast and Verizon, according to this story in the Flier.

There are lots of hoops to jump through before our mailboxes get stuffed by another company begging us to switch. Everyone has tales of woe about service outages at one company or another. But beyond the basics, is there really much difference between what companies are offering these days?

If you were starting a cable-phone-Internet juggernaut what would you do to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack? Real local programming? A Tivo service you could program from your cell phone? An Internet television cloud that would follow you anywhere?

How about do-it-yourself channels, the Cranky hour, or a Hometown Columbia hula-hoop-a-thon?

Now that would be real competition.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Setting Sail

WaPo's WashBiz Blog recently posted an item about CACI International, an Arlington-based information technology and network services provider, announcing that it had snapped up Columbia's Dragon Development.

We had not heard much about Dragon before, and that's probably because the company provides professional, technical and engineering services to the intelligence community. According to CACI, the company's revenue is expected to eclipse $32 million in 2007, and its workforce includes 75 people who hold top secret security clearances with special access.

Those sorts of people are really hard to come by these days, what with the boom in post 9/11 security spending, especially for smaller firms. Dragon's secret? Could it be the "Dragon Club?" The company offers Caribbean cruises and such to hard-working employees and their spouses.

We wonder if the boss is reading this...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Blue Ribbon Schools

River Hill High School and Burleigh Manor Middle are Blue Ribbon schools.

That's according to the feds, who bestow the honors on schools that meet one of two criteria: "
1) Schools with at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds that dramatically improve student performance to high levels on state tests; and 2) Schools whose students, regardless of background, achieve in the top 10 percent of their state on state tests or in the case of private schools in the top 10 percent of the nation on nationally-normed tests."

We assume River Hill and Burleigh Manor made the grade because of No. 2.

The two schools were among seven in Maryland, and 287 nationwide, according to the Education Department's list.

What do the honorees get?

Bragging rights of course.

Two people from each school, the principal and a teacher, also will be invited to a ceremony in Washington in November. There they will receive a plaque and a flag signifying their new status.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Price Of History

The county has reached an agreement to buy the old stone Post Office on Main Street in Ellicott City, "pending an inspection period during which the viability of the building and the County’s ability to make the necessary improvements to ensure its long term preservation will be assessed."

The county plans to convert the upstairs mailroom into a tourism center (there's currently an information office downstairs, along with an office for U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings).

What caught our eye was the price for prime 1940s-era Main Street real estate: $640,000. Either this is some fixer upper, or maybe the feds took pity on poor Howard. Here's a listing for another nearby property, which is going for close to $1 million.

(Of course, it's possible the feds are keeping title to the land, the releases we saw just mention the county is buying the building).

Monday, October 1, 2007

County Releases Downtown Plan

County Exec Ken Ulman is seeking public comment on a draft report for coming up with a community vision for Columbia's downtown.

The document, the product of discussions going back at least to 2005 (and probably earlier), lays out some of the challenges and goals and includes an assessment of traffic. The "framework" really doesn't provide a roadmap to how we actually accomplish anything. That comes later after General Growth (which bought the Rouse Co.) comes up with its own master plan, and the county approves any necessary zoning changes, according to this article in the Sun.

When it comes to land use, planning is not done on Internet time.

Here's an excerpt from the county report, to get an idea of what you'll read:

"The public discourse on Downtown Columbia has shown a clear and strong consensus for a
livelier Downtown, but there are also broad concerns about infrastructure capacity, building
heights, housing affordability and other issues. A new plan for development in Columbia
must reflect the community’s priorities and adequately address its concerns."

Lots of big words there. Lots of disagreements embedded there.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Final Talk

Flier sports columnist Stan Ber turned us on to this: Former Oakland Mills grad, Howard High English teacher and now Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch gave a moving talk at the university recently about what he might say if he knew he was going to die soon.

According to a WSJ story (subscription required), such talks by big name professors are common on college campuses, a chance to muse hypothetically about what matters most to them. This one was a bit different, Pausch has pancreatic cancer and really doesn't have much time.

Here's a little excerpt from the Journal piece:

"He began by showing his CT scans, revealing 10 tumors on his liver. But after that, he talked about living. If anyone expected him to be morose, he said, 'I'm sorry to disappoint you.' He then dropped to the floor and did one-handed pushups.


"Clicking through photos of himself as a boy, he talked about his childhood dreams: to win giant stuffed animals at carnivals, to walk in zero gravity, to design Disney rides, to write a World Book entry. By adulthood, he had achieved each goal. As proof, he had students carry out all the huge stuffed animals he'd won in his life, which he gave to audience members. After all, he doesn't need them anymore.

"He paid tribute to his techie background. 'I've experienced a deathbed conversion,' he said, smiling. 'I just bought a Macintosh.' Flashing his rejection letters on the screen, he talked about setbacks in his career, repeating: 'Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.' He encouraged us to be patient with others. 'Wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you.' "

The WSJ has a link to a video of his talk, but it's behind the paid subscription wall. You also can see his talk on YouTube.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Stuck In The Mud

Has anyone had a look at Triadelphia Reservoir lately? Water levels are low, the result of the ongoing drought.

Not that we particularly want to complain about the weather lately.

The folks who manage the Triadelphia recreation area have closed the boat ramps and grounds because some boaters were getting stuck in the mud, according to this release. Car and truck access to other boat ramps in the area have already been closed, but not just because of the drought.

Officials announced in August that they were draining some of Rocky Gorge to perform maintenance on the reservoir. That was a relief to us, because we were getting worried about the growing brown rim as we trekked across the Route 29 bridge in recent days.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which manages the reservoirs, notes that kayaks and other hand-carried boats may still be used at Rocky Gorge, Scott’s Cover and Supplee Lane, and the ramp at Greenbridge is open.

Boating is permitted only from March 1 through December 15.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Back to eSchooling

It's back to school season, a time when we at Columbia Talk get to meet the folks who spend so much time with our not-so-little ones. We're always curious here at Talk Central to see what progress, if any, teachers are making with integrating technology into their daily activities.

Our experience is that it depends greatly on the teacher. Some have robust Web sites, with homework assignments posted daily, links to extra help, e-mail addresses, even grade books. We can't emphasize enough how grateful we are for such teachers, especially when the not-so-little ones announce late on a weekday night that they have this little project that's due in the morning.

Most teachers kind of do it halfway. They post homework assignments, but not grades. Some links work and others don't. They have an e-mail address, but may not check it all that often. (Sounds like certain bloggers we know).

And then there are the ones who either promise to have a Web site at back to school night, only to never be heard from again. Or they just don't believe in the Internet thing. Or they won't do it until they are given the planning time (or more pay) to do it.

We hear that some schools have adopted software packages to bring consistency to all this, but not every school has seen the wisdom.

At the back to school night we attended, many of the questions from parents (aside from how the not-so-little ones are doing) dealt with what was available online. Perhaps that's because for so many parents in a county like ours, the Internet is a key conduit of communication.

The schools seem to be coming to this realization, albeit slowly.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mean Green?

The Sun's environmental blog says tonight's town hall meeting on global warming and one energy company's response to it, brought to you by ConocoPhillips, is likely to be met by environmental activists from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. They are "urging people to turn out in large numbers -- with protest signs, and pointed questions to prevent any 'greenwashing' of the company's record."

According to a ConocoPhillips Web site, the company is "hosting town hall meetings and community events in 35 cities throughout America, bringing together energy experts and concerned citizens to discuss ways to secure our energy future."

The meeting starts at 7p at the Sheraton Columbia Hotel, according to this notice. The "conversation on energy" is being hosted by ConocoPhillips and the University of Maryland Energy Research Center.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Mojitos and Salsa

Holy Cow! Diversity in Howard!

WaPo discovers a little Latin flair in Howard when it stops by a pachanga Cubana over the weekend.

"The sounds of Cuban salsa soar amid the tall oak trees, the minty mojitos are flowing like water. Among the 100 or so politicos, entrepreneurs, bankers and social service managers gathered yesterday afternoon and evening around the swimming pool, there are more guayaberas than sports coats. They're feasting on Cuban classics like ropa vieja (beef) and lechon (pork), followed by flan and tres leches, then strong coffee and long cigars -- not from Cuba, alas, the puffing men complain in mock dismay, but from Honduras.

"Pachanga Howard? Latino middle-class professionals have long since spread beyond the typical Latino neighborhoods in and around Washington. In common with professionals the world over, they like to party and to network. This pachanga -- a word that Cubans in particular use to mean 'big party' -- is supposed to combine both passions of the multi-tasking careerist. Leave your stuffy work inhibitions at home.

"The hosts are Enrique Carrillo, director of Hispanic banking for Chevy Chase Bank, and his wife, Maria, a doctor who specializes in pulmonary critical care. Enrique Carrillo likes to say he's 'American with Cuban parts' -- his parents fled Castro and he was born in the United States -- while Maria Carrillo was born in Cuba. But Cubans are actually in the minority here in the Carrillo back yard, their big brick home thrown open to natives from at least a dozen Latin American countries, along with several appreciative gringos."

Carrillo recently moved to the county from Detroit, where his parties were a big deal.

"He wrote a memo for his bosses at Chevy Chase, who had never heard of such a thing. But then, Carrillo has been hired to institute change. Thanks to him, when you call the bank's main number, the second sentence you hear is "Gracias por llamar a Chevy Chase Bank" -- "Thank you for calling Chevy Chase Bank." The phrase "Hablamos su idioma" -- "We speak your language" -- is now part of the bank's marketing. Some other banks are ahead of Chevy Chase in reaching out to Latinos, but Carrillo says he wants to set a new standard.

"Bringing people together, what a wonderful thing to do, and that's what I like to do," Carrillo says.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Beer On Wheels

Some of the folks who live by the Fairway Hills golf course are not so enchanted with the idea of CA selling beer from the snack carts rolling around the links.

They've assembled a pretty good list of reasons, according to this article in the Flier:

* The beverages could impair golfer's coordination.

* Intoxicated golfers might be more likely to relieve themselves on residential property when nature calls.

* More balls could come flying into nearby yards and houses.

* Unsportsmanlike conduct might become more common.

* Golfers should stick to wine.

OK, we made that last one up. CA says it is already selling beer from carts at Hobbits Glen and one manager that the homeowner's organization does not intend to just let people "slosh down" the cold stuff.

We don't know how this one will turn out but we wouldn't mind if one of those carts swings by our little cul-de-sac late one afternoon this weekend.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Columbia's Destiny


Say what you like about the prospects for a mammoth, huge, gigantic, towering 275-foot skyscraper in downtown Columbia, but the debate over this single building --- like the conversation going on over the proposed Wegman's --- has stirred real discussion about the future of this fair town.

According to WaPo's account of this week's council meeting on the highrise condo, both sides invoked the name of Rouse in saying he would or would not have approved of where we are headed. Suddenly, everyone wants to talk about the Next America again.

One wonders if the nature of the debates would be any different if they played out not before county planning commissions and councils but a panel of Columbia elders.

What if we controlled our own destiny?

Isn't that what Father Rouse really wanted?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Presidential Visit


The pres is scheduled to journey our fair corner of the world today, stopping over at the NSA, as part of a public relations push to extend the Protect America Act. Such visits used to be big deals---we remember when a stop by Swedish King Carl Gustav XVI made the girls swoon at Bryant Woods back in, what, 1976?

But now we wonder if anyone other than the national media will notice. If a president stops at a super secret intelligence installation and the general public isn't around to witness, does it happen?

It probably depends. Back on our anniversary tour of Monterey, Calif., we stopped by a state park filled with giant coastal Redwoods. The better half of the Columbia Team remarked that if one of those babies decided to relocate, you'd hear it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Watching Our Seafood

One of the stops on the Columbia Talk anniversary tour last week was Monterey Bay, Calif., where most folks seem pretty serious about the environment. There was lots of discussion about airplanes spraying pesticides to counter the voracious light brown apple moth. And just about every restaurant boasted that it only served "sustainable" seafood, as outlined in these nifty little guides prepared by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Here's how the aquarium folks describe what's best to eat: "Our 'Best Choices' are abundant, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Seafood to 'Avoid' are overfished and/or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment. You can view the guides online or download a pocket-size version."

There's regional differences. When we told people we enjoyed our rockfish in Maryland, we often drew gasps of horror. The West Coast thinks of rockfish as snapper and cod, and they are mostly on the avoid list. We call striped bass as rockfish, and we were relieved to discover that is a best choice according to the Monterey guides.