Friday, October 31, 2008

A Halloween Shocker

We always appreciate the fine work going on over at the HowChow blog as the busy staff there keeps us up to date on the local culinary culture. So it was with special interest that we read this entry dubbed "Shocked! Shocked!" HowChow was shocked that a certain newspaper's revamped Going Out Guide omitted places to go in our environs.

Happily, HowChow offers some suggestions to plug into the GPS.

There's also recommendations on who has the best pumpkins.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Sun's View On Downtown

The Sun offers its view on efforts to remake downtown Columbia. We would sum it up this way...give General Growth's plan a chance, but modify it to protect the public good. To do nothing is worse because it could allow projects to proceed in an "unplanned, piecemeal" fashion.

Hmm. Is it really possible for development in one of America's original planned communities to proceed in a piecemeal way?

But we digress. Here's how the editorial department kicks off its argument:

Almost everyone in Columbia agrees that settling on a master plan to guide an energizing makeover of the city's 40-year-old town center is an urgent priority. But some residents are concerned that the wrong plan could do serious harm. The Howard County government should proceed cautiously on this matter. The proposed redevelopment may be the biggest project since Columbia's birth, and its impact will be felt for decades to come.

Certainly that's been the conventional thinking. We wonder, though, why the rush? Hasn't the world changed completely since this process kicked off? It's not like if a plan was approved tomorrow the bulldozers would rumble to life. The development industry is largely paralyzed right now -- frozen by a credit crunch and an economic downturn.

Does the downturn really "heighten the urgency" as the Sun quotes our fair county executive?

Or does the downturn buy us a little time to plan a future devoid of some near-term profit opportunity? We wonder if we have one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments when, just like the boys and girls at the original Rouse Co., we can work with a clean sheet of paper.

Perhaps everyone is comfortable that the lengthy process to date, the process that led to the current GG plan on the table, represents the faithful culmination of just that sort of exercise.

Really, we can argue either side.

One thing we know: Whatever the outcome, it'll be our legacy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Testing The Diploma

The SunFlierTimesExploreHoward blog says 237 HoCo high school seniors still have not met the state's new graduation requirement.

This is the first group of seniors who have to pass exit tests in algebra, English, biology and government to receive their diploma. Either that, or they must achieve a certain minimum combined score or complete authorized alternative work.

Although Howard County schools posted one of the highest success rates on the state High School Assessments, with 93 percent of the 3,583 diploma-seeking students in the class of 2009 in the clear, the county still has 237 seniors working to complete the requirement.

....Howard’s pass rate tied Harford County’s for the fourth highest in the state, trailing Carroll, Calvert and Frederick counties.

Of the 3,329 members of the county’s class of 2009 who had met the requirement as of May, 86 percent did so by passing all four exams, while 7 percent did so by achieving a sufficient combined score.

WaPo reported that one of every six high school seniors in Maryland has not met a new state test-score requirement for receiving a diploma, state officials reported Tuesday, leaving thousands in jeopardy of missing graduation in the spring.

There was an 11th hour attempt by some members of the state school board to delay imposing the new requirement.

On a 7 to 4 vote, the board rejected an effort to delay enforcement of the requirement after an impassioned debate, during which one board member shouted into his microphone and another almost broke into tears.

The tense vote affirming the Maryland High School Assessments kept the state in a national movement to tighten diploma standards. For several years, Virginia has required students to pass a series of Standards of Learning exams to earn a standard diploma. The District does not have high school exit exams.

Statewide results can be found here.

UPDATE: Here's the school by school breakdown in Howard:

* HCPSS (92.9)
* Atholton (97.8)
* Centenial (92.8)
* Glenelg (97.8)
* Hammond (90.2)
* Howard (96.4)
* Long Reach (88.5)
* Marriotts Ridge (96.6)
* Mt. Hebron (93.7)
* Oakland Mills (79.6)
* Reservoir (90.4)
* River Hill (99.0)
* Wilde Lake (89.5)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Trick or ...Cash

Talk about putting your money where your mouth is...Rashmi Parmar is offering to buy back Halloween candy from trick-or-treaters the day after fright night, according to this story on the Sun/Flier/ExploreHoward blog.

The Clarksville dentist is offering children 50 cents per pound of candy — along with, naturally, a toothbrush — and will send the candy to U.S. troops serving overseas.

Here's the particulars:

The candy buyback event will take place between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Parmar’s office, at 12620 Clarksville Pike.

Because the food will be boxed and shipped to the troops, Parmar said she is accepting only wrapped candy.

For more information about the candy buy-back, call Parmar’s office at 410-531-5639.

Absentees Make The Vote Go Fonder...

...or something like that.

We saw this on our local Oakland Mills listserv:


**Absentee Ballot Requests DUE TOMORROW, October 28, 2008!!! **

Tomorrow is your last day to request an absentee ballot! Make sure your voice is still heard. If you are unable to vote in person, you may obtain an absentee ballot application to request an absentee ballot. To request an absentee ballot you must complete the Absentee Ballot Application. To use this form, enter the required information, print the form, sign it, and send by mail or by fax to the Howard County Board of Elections. Your Absentee Ballot Form must be received by 4:30p.m. on October 28, 2008, if your application is mailed; or by 11:59 p.m. on October 28, 2008, if the application is faxed (410-313-5833).




For more information you may call the Howard County Board of Elections at 410-313-5820

Monday, October 27, 2008

General Growth Shuffles Management

GG said its chief executive and president have stepped aside, and will be replaced by two directors. The giant retail developer also said the president being replaced and a former chief financial officer failed to follow company policy in disclosing certain loans they received to help with stock margin calls.

The company said it is now putting several Las Vegas shopping centers up for sale; its hired Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Eastdil Secured to market the properties. No new info on Columbia.

Some excerpts from its statement:

General Growth Properties, Inc. (NYSE: GGP) today announced that two independent directors of the company will assume senior management positions effective immediately. Adam Metz will serve as interim Chief Executive Officer, and Thomas H. Nolan Jr. will serve as interim President, positions previously held by John Bucksbaum and Robert A. Michaels, respectively. Mr. Bucksbaum will continue to serve as Chairman and Mr. Michaels will continue to serve as Chief Operating Officer and a senior officer of the company. In order to maintain a majority of independent directors, Mr. Michaels has also given up his Board seat.

...The company’s Board of Directors and management team, along with its financial and legal advisors, continue to be fully engaged in a comprehensive evaluation of all financial and strategic alternatives for the company, including but not limited to, asset sales, joint ventures, corporate level capital infusions, and broader strategic business combinations.

...The Company also announced that it has recently come to the attention of the Board that an affiliate of a Bucksbaum family trust advanced unsecured loans to Mr. Michaels and Bernard Freibaum, the company’s former director and CFO, for the purpose of repaying personal margin debt relating to company stock. The loan to Mr. Michaels, which totaled $10 million, has been repaid in full. The loan to Mr. Freibaum, whose employment was terminated prior to the Board’s knowledge of these loans, totaled $90 million and has $80 million presently outstanding.

A review by the Company’s independent directors concluded that, while the failure to disclose the loans to the Company’s Board of Directors did not follow internal company policy, no company assets or resources were involved in the loans and that no laws or Securities and Exchange Commission rules were violated as a result of the loans.

Tell 'Em How To Spend Your Money

From HoCo schools:

The Board of Education of Howard County invites you to participate in the What Counts in Education Community Forum. The forum is sponsored by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Board of Education of Howard County and is open to all interested community members. The purpose of the forum is to discuss and recommend future priorities for the Howard County Public School System's Operating Budget. Participants will:

- Discuss elements of the school system's operating budget
- Identify budget recommendations for the next 1-5 years
- Review and recommend final budget priorities

The forum will be held on:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Homewood Center (behind the Department of Education)
10914 Route 108
Ellicott City, MD 21042

To confirm your attendance, please e-mail Florence Jackson at or call 410-313-5638 by Monday, November 3.

Free Chocolate

This being Monday, we know we could use a pick-me-up.

On the mall's Web site we found this offer, and others:

Godiva Chocolatier Halloween Specials

Our 2008 Halloween collection is elegantly frisky- with a slinky black cat appearing throughout. It features Halloween gift boxes filled with our classic chocolates, as well as a playful assortment of Halloween novelty items. Chocolate cats, "Stash" the plush bear (holding a box of our chocolate covered pretzels), an embroidered satchel of chocolate medallions, and our famous Pumpkin Spice truffles round out a decadent collection filled with many spooky treats.

Visit our boutique for a complimentary sample of
(while supplies last):

# 10/24 to 10/26: Godiva Biscuits

Friday, October 24, 2008


The Rouse, er General Growth, watch continues. And we thought our 401(k) performance was bad:

General Growth's stock price on March 23, 2007: $67.00

General Growth's stock price on June 5, 2008: $42.22

General Growth's stock price at 12:26p on Friday: $2.36 (down 16 percent so far today)

UPDATE: GG's stock price at the end of the day: $2.17 -- a decline of 96.8 percent since March.

Who Do Ya Like?

The Sun/Flier/Times ExploreHoward media conglomerate surveys the field for school board races. Six contenders are competing for three spots.

There's not a lot in the stories to make judgments, but some clues. Give the full piece a gander; we include highlights here:

Diane Butler

Butler would like to see the addition of the International Baccalaureate program, better identification and support for students who need academic help and more accessible vocational training.

Allen Dyer

"The board has to be proactive in its communication with the public. The board shouldn't assume the citizens know what's in the mind of the board," said Dyer, who has been a critic of the board's operations in the past. He sued the board in 2000 over alleged violations of the state's open meetings law although judges ruled he lacked standing in the case.

Ellen Flynn Giles

The state of the country's economy has spurred Board of Education member Ellen Flynn Giles to ponder ways the schools can be more efficient without sacrificing the quality of education....

For example, rather than hiring a new teacher, students should be able to take Web-based courses at Howard Community College for specialized subjects such as statistics or Chinese.

Betsy Grater

A tight economy likely will require a reevaluation of the schools' budget and Grater said she would "take into consideration the constraints and look at how we can do things better ... and not take away from teachers or the curriculum in doing it."

Janet Siddiqui

One of Siddiqui's priorities is to continue the board's work addressing the achievement gap, she said. Keys to that include strong principal leadership, partnerships with the community and quality after-school programs, she said.

Di Zou

Zou said the county lacks sufficient technology training for its teachers. He also thinks that there should be more laptops available in classrooms for students to use during the school day. Ideally, Zou also would like to see projectors installed in each classroom, but acknowledges the endeavor might be costly.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Boo Bins

Not everyone likes the big new recycling bins arriving in our driveways of late.

The Examiner's business columnist Dan Gainor says they are too big. The 65-gallon giant he received won't fit in his shed. (We'll supply a link when the Examiner sees fit to put one on its Web site where we can find it...Howard? Business? Search box? UPDATE: Ahhh, the link, thanks to an alert reader.).

Here's what we learn from the Fox Business channel contributor:

- Columbia is a "loony enclave."

- Maybe HoCo exec Ken Ulman should be called "Mr. Has Bin."

- And the county has attached tiny radio-frequency identification tags to the bins to track their use.

This last point previously escaped our attention. But it's true; the carts do come with RFID chips, according to the county's FAQ. And there's been some coverage in the trade press. According to this story, the county has discussed whether to send postcards to people who are not recycling. (We don't know if that ever happened.)

Gainor is not a fan of the idea. "Some petty gray-suited functionary is now going to assess my antisocial recycling opposition. It's an intersection between Big Brother and garbage, not that there's much difference between the two."

Ok, we get the feeling he doesn't much care for the county's recycling efforts.

RFID concerns aside, his blast reminds us a bit of a recent episode of "Mad Men," the TV drama centered around the 1960s Madison Avenue advertising culture. In one scene Don Draper and family are winding up an idyllic picnic by the side of the road somewhere. As they pack up, Don heaves his beer can as far as he can throw. Mom shakes the blanket free of lunchtime debris and checks her kids' hands to see that they are clean before the clan happily climbs back into the Cadillac for the ride home.

The camera pans back to show a wide shot of trash scattered on the hillside.

Someone else's problem.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Columbia's YouTube

We often get the feeling there are a lot of cool things going on in Howard's tech community, but everyone is so darn shy about letting the world now.

It was only by accident we came across this release from a local company trying to innovate in the YouTube space.

The Columbia company is called VioSync and its product is dubbed TubeLinx. According to the company, TubeLinx allows users to:

-- View two media streams side-by-side in Multi-Sync mode;
-- Comment on and toggle to a point-in-time or a selected segments of a
given media stream;
-- Attach synchronized comments to media in a wide range of forms,
-- Text, video, as well as audio streams that are instantly recorded
or pre-recorded;
-- Dynamic links to other media segments or other internal or external
-- On-the-media Marking that permits the user to frame the point of
interest within the played media screen.

Pretty clever. But it sounds like Gaith Abdo, the president of VioSync, needs to work on his elevator speech.

"It's almost impossible to explain," Abdo says in a release, "but play it for 10 minutes and you'll get really excited."

Kinda like Tivo, we guess.

Here's how the company explains who it is:

VioSync LLC was established in 2006 to provide the platform and infrastructure for the TubeLinx, said Gaith Abdo who is the president and CEO of Intecorp, which was founded in 1999 headquartered in the NeoTech Center in Howard County, Maryland. The company offers consulting services in network engineering, e-mail systems, Internet and ecommerce, security, application development, data warehousing, help desk support and training. Intecorp has an extensive number of clients, including the FDA, IRS, and U.S. Navy, and recently won a multi-million contract for website support and development from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Word From General Growth

OK, it's a form letter from GG's Columbia chief Greg Hamm, but it's the thought that counts:

Dear Neighbor,

The General Plan Amendment for Columbia Town Center has been submitted! Thank you to everyone who has worked with us throughout the development of the plan, providing ideas and helping shape a plan that truly is "Many Voices: One Vision" for a revitalized Columbia Town Center. We believe the plan that has been submitted has been made stronger through extensive public participation and reflects the best thinking and ideas of all involved while honoring the values of Columbia and holding true to the vision of Jim Rouse.

Many of you have been eager to learn more details about the plan and we would like to highlight a few key elements that might be of particular interest. This is not a comprehensive list, and we encourage you to visit the Web site to view the General Plan Amendment in its entirety.

Highlights from the General Plan Amendment

The plan centers on the construction of five new downtown neighborhoods - Warfield, The Lakefront, The Crescent, Merriweather and Symphony Overlook - each of which, though interconnected, will have its own unique character and serve a specific purpose in making downtown more livable, vibrant and exciting.

Phasing of the Redevelopment

To ensure that redevelopment proceeds in a thoughtful way and that infrastructure, including an improved transportation system, grows apace with new development, the plan will be implemented in phases over 30 years, eventually creating 5,500 new housing units, five million square feet of new office space, and 1.25 million square feet of new retail space, new cultural and recreational amenities.Each phase throughout buildout will be submitted to the County for review and approval.

* Phase One would include the construction of approximately 1,640 residential units, half million square feet of retail space, 1.1 million square feet of office space and 250 hotel rooms.
* Phase Two would include the construction of approximately 2,000 residential units, 350,000 square feet of retail space, 2 million square feet of office space, and 250 hotel rooms.
* Phase Three would include the construction of approximately 1,860 residential units, 160,000 square feet of retail space, and 1.8 million square feet of office space and 140 hotel rooms.

Connecting Columbia Town Center and the Villages

The neighborhoods are designed to better connect the areas comprising Town Center - The Mall in Columbia, Lake Kittamaqundi and its immediate environs, and the area that includes Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Additionally, the plan encourages less driving, more walking and biking and more convenient access to public transportation. Recommendations to enhance connectivity include:

* Improved pedestrian connections designed to better link downtown Columbia with the villages of Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills.
* A promenade lined with trees, fountains, restaurants and stores, called Market Square, which would link The Mall in Columbia to the cultural area and park.
* A series of landscaped terraces with fountains creating connections from Lake Kittamaqundi.
* A transit center that would serve as a hub for a balanced transportation system designed to discourage the use of automobiles and encourage walking, biking and the use of buses, and the creation of a nonprofit Transportation Management Association to manage transportation demand and implement a new downtown transit system.

Creating Amenities and a Cultural Hub

In addition to providing new housing, offices, shops, restaurants and cafés, the plan creates recreational and cultural amenities including:

* A new cultural area and park anchored by a redeveloped Merriweather Post Pavilion.
* Development of a Downtown Cultural Commission and a Cultural Master Plan to promote Columbia as a focal point for arts and cultural activities in Howard County and the region.
* Creation of an amenity space in each neighborhood.

Encouraging Inclusion and Diversity

In keeping with the Rouse vision of community that is inclusive and diverse, the plan includes a commitment to full-spectrum housing so a mix of people of all incomes can afford to live in downtown Columbia.

* The plan proposes as a goal that 20 percent of the residential development in Town Center be set aside for mixed-income and affordable housing and to be built in step with other housing and distributed across all neighborhoods.
o Ten percent of residential development will be made available to persons earning less than 80 percent of Howard County's median income; today that's about $80,000 per year.
o Ten percent of residential development will be constructed to standards that will help make those units more affordable for people and families making 80-120 percent of Howard County's median income (about $80,000-$120,000)
* A Community Housing Foundation (CHF) is proposed as a community-led nonprofit which would manage an affordable housing fund and provide a housing subsidy to qualified applicants.

Restoring and Preserving our Environment

* Encouraging the use of "green" building standards in future construction and the implementation of practices to decrease storm runoff, thereby decreasing the amount of pollution that enters Lake Kittamaqundi and other downtown waterways;
* A commitment to protect and enhance downtown's natural resources, including its lakes, streams and woodlands;
* Restoring and enhancing Symphony Woods to support a sustainable forest and restoring Symphony Stream and Little Patuxent River watersheds and streambeds to allow them to become rich habitats for wildlife.

Next Steps
What happens next?

The General Plan Amendment has been submitted to Howard County. The Department of Planning and Zoning will now review it and then issue a report. Typically, the planning staff has 30 days to review and comment on a submitted plan.

Once the planning staff has finalized its report, the Amendment then will go to the Howard County Planning Board, which will hold public hearings and work sessions on the document before making a recommendation to the Howard County Council. The Council also will hold hearings and work sessions on the plan before voting on it.

We will keep you posted as the plan moves through this process. We also urge you to follow the actions of the Howard County Planning Board and to participate in public hearings. Citizen input is still critical in shaping and approving a plan, and ultimately for realizing the revitalization of Columbia Town Center, so make sure your voice is heard.

Thank you again for your support and thoughtful participation throughout the development of the General Plan Amendment. We couldn't have done it without you.


Gregory F. Hamm Regional Vice President General Manager, Columbia

Does Mass Transit Matter?

And we thought ridership was up.

Good thing the price of gas is coming down. The state is preparing to cut back on service to the area. CA posted this Mass Transit Administration release on its Web site (We've edited slightly to focus on reductions affecting our fair area).

The sources of revenue that support the operation of MTA’s MARC Train and Commuter Bus services have declined dramatically since the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Regrettably, MTA must reduce its budget, and while the majority of reductions are taking place in our administrative budget some MARC Train and Commuter Bus services are proposed for elimination. The proposed service reductions are listed below.

Service reductions are proposed to take effect on January 12, 2009 or sooner if the service reduction is based on a holiday.

MTA will hold public hearings throughout the State to receive public comments on these proposals. Click for a list of public hearings. Citizens may provide comments at any hearing that it is convenient, or may send comments directly to the MTA by mail or email. No matter how it is sent, any comment received by December 26, 2008 will be considered before proposals are finalized.

By mail, please address comments to:

Mr. Glenn Litsinger
MTA Office of Customer Information
6 St. Paul Street
Baltimore MD 21202

By email, address comments regarding Commuter Bus proposals to with “Hearing Comments” as the subject heading.

Address comments regarding MARC Train proposals to with “Hearing Comments” as the subject heading.

The following services are proposed for elimination:
Commuter Bus
· All service from Baltimore to Columbia on the Nos. 310 and 311 Lines
· All service on the No. 320 Line from Laurel to Baltimore
· One round trip on the No. 995 Line from Columbia to Washington, DC and the branch of the line serving Oakland Mills
· Saturday service and one weekday mid-morning round trip on the No. 929 Line from Columbia to Washington, DC

In addition to these service reductions, MTA proposes, effective Veterans’ Day, to:
· Eliminate all holiday service (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Presidents’
Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day and the day after Thanksgiving)
· Eliminate all service on the day after Christmas
· Operate holiday service rather than full service on Christmas Eve and the day after New Year’s Day.
MARC Train
· The last two evening round trip trains on the Penn Line (Trains #445, 446, 447 and 448)
· All service on Mondays through Thursdays on Brunswick Line train #871 (Friday service to continue)
· Termination of Brunswick Line train #883 at Brunswick
· All service on the mid-day bus shuttle between Odenton and Laurel
· In addition to these service reductions, MTA proposes, effective Veterans’ Day, to:
· Eliminate all holiday service on all lines (Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day and the day after Thanksgiving)
· Eliminate service on all lines on the day after Christmas
· Operate holiday service rather than full service on Christmas Eve and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day
· Operate holiday service rather than full service on the day after New
Year’s Day.
· The MTA also proposes to eliminate the MARC Ten-Trip Ticket.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cleaning Up Dirty Dancing

Granted, we never quite mastered the Macarena, Hustle or Electric Slide. But whooo boy, what the young kids are doing today.

Actually, we're not so much surprised. A couple years back, we found ourselves blushing at some of the homecoming pictures posted on one high school's Web site (and it wasn't a Columbia school).

But Centennial High School Principal Carl Perkins is trying to put his foot down. He's come up with a series of guidelines for do's and don'ts of appropriate behavior. Here's ABC Channel 2's take:

Concerned about the dance moves showcased at a recent back to school dance, the school came up with a list of guidelines for this weekend's homecoming dance. Many students don't understand what the fuss is about.

The dance guidelines include rules like:

- no wrapping legs around others

- no humping

- no forceful thrusting

- no freak trains

- no removal of clothing

Removal of clothing?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Does Anyone Else Have An Opinion?

That's a question that comes to our mind after reading the local papers for the past few weeks. Take this story on the traffic implications of General Growth's downtown plans, the first of what the ExploreHoward blog says will be a four-part series on the "Columbia of Tomorrow."

Who do we hear from? General Growth's traffic consultant, County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, CA Board member Alex Hekimian and State Del. Elizabeth Bobo. Important views, all...but just maybe there are some other voices out there.

We'd love to hear from you.

HoCo Rec Board Settles On Blandair Plan

The ExploreHoward blog says the county's parks and rec board has approved a master plan for a future Blandair Regional Park in eastern Columbia.

The Howard County Recreation and Parks Board unanimously decided [Wednesday night] to adopt Alternative G-1, the design plan suggested by the Blandair Park Advisory Committee, said Recreation and Parks Director Gary Arthur. The final plan incorporated many of the suggestions from residents who spoke out about it during a public meeting in September.

The park will be built on 300 acres of former farmland in east Columbia and split into southern and northern halves divided by Route 175. The northern half, which holds the original farm buildings and manor house, would include softball fields, open meadows and a nature center. The south side would feature a skate park, baseball fields and a multi-purpose building.

Don't start dusting off that skateboard yet. The story says construction won't likely start until 2010 and construction could take 10 years to finish.

This, after the county bought the land more than a decade ago.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another

The WSJ reports that the stocks of shopping mall owners are getting hammered as investors begin to worry about what a recession might mean for the retailers who inhabit them.

A 1.2% sales decline reported for September, the largest drop in three years, will have little immediate impact on mall owners because only a fraction of tenants' leases are tied to sales volumes. However, over several quarters, declining sales translate to weaker retailers, more vacancies and more difficulties for landlords carrying heavy debt loads.

Landlords like General Growth?

...the drain on mall owners' cash flow caused by weakening retail sales will make it more difficult for landlords to pay the interest on their debt and to refinance it. Mall owners are among the most debt-heavy of real-estate investment trusts, with their debt equal to 57% of their asset values, according to Green Street Advisors. Certain debt-laden mall owners such as General Growth have little extra cash flow to spare these days as debt maturities loom.

We're At The Break Point

The Sun reports on a briefing by county budget director Raymond Wacks, who tells County Council that the county may end up with a shortfall in its current budget.

For the current fiscal year, which ends next June 30, the county is expected to be close to the "break-even point," Wacks said. The county is facing a potential $1.8 million revenue shortfall out of an $850 million locally funded budget, though the final outcome is still uncertain.

Property tax revenues are $10 million higher than expected so far this fiscal year, Wacks said, but real estate and income tax revenues are lower than predicted.

The county has begun to hold open vacant jobs and make other moves to prepare.

"I think this is a scary situation for all of us," Wacks said. "It could get even worse."

Wacks said property assessments may decline in the one-third of the county covering Elkridge and parts of east Columbia. The state will reassess for next fiscal year, but years of previous growth in values should keep property tax revenues growing for a time. Builders are postponing projects, however, he said, and if conditions worsen, so could the revenue picture.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NYT to Columbia: It's Rouse's Fault

From the New York Times DealBook blog:

It took only six weeks of negotiations for General Growth Properties, the nation’s second-largest shopping mall owner and operator, to agree to buy the Rouse Company in 2004 for $12.6 billion, a breathtaking price at the time.

Now that hasty decision, which drew immediate fire from Wall Street analysts, has come back to haunt General Growth and may lead to the sale of the 54-year-old company, whose widely known properties include Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, Water Tower Place in Chicago and the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas, The New York Times’s Terry Pristin reported.

General Growth’s acquisition of Rouse, which was known for its innovative planned communities like Columbia, Md., and its “festival marketplaces” like Faneuil Hall in Boston and the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, was financed almost entirely with short-term mortgage debt. This financing strategy, with debt equal to more than 70 percent of its capitalization, raised fears that General Growth, a real estate investment trust based in Chicago with more than 200 shopping centers, had become overleveraged — fears that have now been borne out. The deal included $5.4 billion of Rouse’s debt.

“They believed that credit markets would continue to be friendly and they would have ample opportunities to restructure their debt,” Keven S. Lindemann, the director of real estate for SNL Financial, a research company in Charlottesville, Va., told The Times. “But the capital markets turned against them.”

Mall Rats For Obama

There once was a time when each morning we'd hop on our bikes and head over to the mall to shoot the breeze, where we'd get into vigorous debates about the important issues of the day. A Fribble at Friendly's or an Orange Julius? Pac Man or pinball at the video arcade? (Geez, how long ago was that?).

These days, the younger set is much more serious, at least according to General Growth, the (Chicago-based) owner of our sprawling indoor main street.

Considered by many to be the most important presidential election in the past 50 years, the upcoming election is top-of-mind for Americans – even for teens under the legal voting age. This summer General Growth Properties (NYSE: GGP), with the help of Disney star Selena Gomez, gave teens a chance to make their voices heard through an innovative, nationwide campaign, UR Votes Count. The program provided teens an opportunity to vote on important, relevant topics, such as the economy, environment, healthcare, the Iraq war, Social Security, national security and education, as well as their choice for the next U.S. president.

After 150 malls, 42 states and six weeks, teens’ choice for the next president of the United States was clear. Illinois Senator Barack Obama won by an overwhelming 62 percent. Arizona Senator John McCain captured 33 percent of the votes, with Bob Barr and Ralph Nader rounding out the vote at two and three percent respectively.

“It’s incredible so many teens came out to vote and learn more about the issues facing our nation today,” said Disney star Selena Gomez. “Thank you to General Growth Properties for providing teenagers, like me, the opportunity to have our voices heard. I’m so proud to have been able to lend a hand in helping to educate my peers and usher in this next generation of voters.”

When it comes to important issues facing the nation, the environment and education are top-of-mind for teens. Seventy-seven percent of teens plan to attend college. However, student loans will affect their decision. Nearly half of 17-year-olds will select their college or university based on the potential amount of debt they might take on through loans. The environment also proved to be a key concern for teens. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) are partly basing their vote on a candidate’s stance on the environment. More than half (59 percent) believe the government should take stronger action and pass laws directing citizens to become more “green.”

“It’s so important people vote. With all of the attention and excitement surrounding the upcoming presidential election, we knew this would be a great time to engage and educate teens on the political process,” said Wally Brewster, senior vice president, Marketing & Communications, General Growth Properties. “It’s essential teens know their vote counts and they are empowered to shape the world as they think it should be.”

Rounding out the hot topics on the minds of America’s future voters are the economy, Social Security, healthcare, the Patriot Act and the Iraq war. Not surprisingly, teens are very aware of today’s challenging economy. Nearly 90 percent believe the current economy is affecting their daily life as a teenager and 44 percent think it will take more than two years for the economy to improve.

When it comes to Social Security, only 39 percent of teens believe it will be available for them when they reach retirement age. Approximately 65 percent think they will need to provide support to their parents if Social Security isn’t available when their parents reach retirement age. As for healthcare, an overwhelming 79 percent of teens think the federal government should provide healthcare for citizens.

The Patriot Act stirs up mixed feelings. Overall, 56 percent believe the Patriot Act effectively protects the nation from terrorism. However, roughly one-quarter (26 percent) believe, while it protects the country from terrorism, it takes away too much privacy and liberty. When it comes to the Iraq war, teens firmly voice their choice – more than half believe the U.S. should begin troop withdrawal now. For more information about program results, visit

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Energized By The Election - Or Not

The Sun/Flier's ExploreHoward blog says voter registration in Howard is up 4.6 percent since the last presidential election four years ago, mainly because of a surge by Democrats.

Democratic registration increased by 8.8 percent during that time period, to slightly more than 83,000, while Republican decreased by 4 percent, to about 54,800. The number of independent voters remained about the same.

The figures mirror a statewide trend over the past four years.

Voter registration will close Oct. 14.

Monday, October 13, 2008

River Hill Hit By Rash Of Thefts

This went out last Friday:

Alert! Numerous Break-ins throughout the community

All Block Captains and River Hill Residents,

Early this morning there were numerous thefts from vehicles in the Village of River Hill. In some instances the vehicles were left unlocked while in others windows were broken out to gain access. The South Wind Circle area (off of Trotter Road) was particularly impacted. Cash, GPS systems, and credit cards were among the items stolen. In addition, three breaking and entering incidents also occurred overnight. River Hill High School and two area business were affected.

Please remember to remove all valuables from your vehicles and to lock your car doors. Better yet, park your vehicles in a locked garage! Be sure to keep the doors to your house and garage closed and locked, even when working in the yard.

Keep an eye out for criminal activity. If you notice something suspicious or a crime in progress, call 911 immediately. If you are the victim of a crime, please promptly report the incident to the Police Department by calling 410-313-2200.

The Sun says Howard County has seen a 40 percent increase in vehicle break-ins in 2008.

So far this year, police say they have received more than 2,500 reports of thefts from vehicles. Last year, there were 1,800 during the same period. Stolen items include personal electronics, GPS units, purses, briefcases and cash, police said.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Arrest In Kings C. Shooting

UPDATE: From HoCo PD -- At this time, investigators are continuing to investigate the details of the case. Anyone with information may be eligible for a reward up to $2,500 and should call police at 410-313-3200.

The Sun says an acquaintance has been arrested in the shooting of 26-year-old Tamba Nyorkor.

Evan Gaines, 18, of Columbia has been charged with first- and second-degree murder and other offenses.

WJZ added a couple details:

Detectives interviewed witnesses who identified Gaines as the shooter.

The investigators believe Gaines was an acquaintance of Nyorkor's who visited the apartment often. They are continuing to investigate the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

WBAL said Evan Marcel Gaines lives at 9804 Softwater Way in Columbia.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

General Growth's Problems Deepen

Investors are growing increasing wary of General Growth Properties' ability to repay its debt.

The company's stock plunged 42 percent earlier this week after an analyst raised questions about the way it borrowed money to finance the purchase of properties nationwide. Some of that debt will soon need to be refinanced, which could be a real problem in the current market.

General Growth's "stress is mostly due to over-leveraging acquisitions in the past five years," Stifel Nicolaus analyst David Fick said in a note to investors on Monday.

The Associated Press quoted Fick as saying there is a risk that management may have to raise money by selling shares, which would make current shareholders' holdings less valuable.

He added that there are no obvious catalysts that would force the REIT to seek bankruptcy protection, but that the unstable credit markets make the stock a risky investment nonetheless. the Chicago company that bought the developer of Columbia, -based owner and manager of more than 200 shopping malls across the nation, has fallen into deeper debt.

On Oct. 3, General Growth said its chief financial officer, Bernard Freibaum, had left the company and it suspended its dividends due to the troubles in the capital markets. The falling stock price has affected some company insiders, including Freibaum, who took out loans using their stock as collateral.

All continuing executive officers of the Company have informed the Company that they have repaid in full all previously existing margin loans and thus there will be no further sales of Company stock by those executive officers to satisfy margin calls. In addition, the Bucksbaum family interests have informed the Company that they have not sold any shares of Company stock and that they do not intend to sell any of their shares of Company stock. The Company has been informed by Mr. Freibaum that on October 2, 2008, he sold approximately 2.95 million shares of common stock to satisfy margin calls and applied all of the proceeds to repay outstanding margin debts. After those sales, Mr. Freibaum has informed the Company that he beneficially owns approximately 1.3 million shares of stock and has approximately $3.4 million of margin debt outstanding.

Shooting In Kings Contrivance

UPDATE 2: Police have finally posted a statement. They are asking anyone with info to call 410-313-3200

UPDATE: The Sun says police are calling the shooting a homicide.

Police identified the victim as Tamba Karmor Nyorkor, 26, and said he lived in the apartment where he was found.

HoCo police said a young man died from a gunshot wound last night. They are not releasing many more details yet. From the Sun:

About 7:30 p.m., police were called to the 9700 block of Clock Tower Lane in the Village of Kings Contrivance neighborhood, where a woman reported that a man in an apartment was either injured or dead, police said. Police and paramedics found the man, who appeared to be in his 20s, dead from a gunshot wound.

Looking at the clips, we see this is the same area as another recent shooting. Again from the Sun:

A Columbia man has been indicted on a charge of attempted first-degree murder, accused of fatally shooting a 15-year-old boy in the head during a robbery attempt.

Dominique Davon McDonald, 18, was arrested in the incident, which police said occurred in the area of Clock Tower Lane in Columbia about 1 a.m. Aug. 27.

McDonald is being held without bond. He also was indicted on first-degree assault and reckless endangerment charges.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Recycling Rules

We can now toss more stuff into the blue bins.

From HoCo PR:

ELLICOTT CITY, MD – Howard County Executive Ken Ulman today announced that the County’s new wheeled recycling carts and bins can now be filled with additional plastic, aluminum and waxed cardboard products. This includes common household items such as plastic yogurt tubs, lawn furniture and flower pots, aluminum foil and pie plates, milk and juice cartons, and much more. Residents can also recycle bags filled with plastic bags as long as the bag is tied shut. A postcard describing all of the new recycling options will be mailed to every Howard County residence that receives Recycling Collection Service.

“Recycling is good for the environment, and recycling continues to make good financial sense as well,” said Ulman.

Also, previously used plastic trash cans and recycling bins may now be picked up at curbside recycling. However, they may need to be labeled so the Recycling Collection Service knows to recycle the can or bin.

As of October 2, approximately 22,000 homes thus far have received either a cart or bin; 16,663 65-gallon carts and 5,332 18-gallon bins have already been delivered (the 35-gallon carts arrived in the County on October 3 and are now in the early stages of delivery). Deliveries will continue until completed in December. Residents will receive a door hanger at their home approximately one to two weeks prior to the cart or bin delivery. Residents can find out when their home should receive their recycling cart or bin by going to and clicking on the link for the interactive map.

The County recently began delivering new recycling carts to residents county-wide with a total of 71,351 bins and carts to be delivered this fall. A total of 52,389 single-family homes will receive 65-gallon carts; 13,151 townhomes with garages will receive 35-gallon carts; and 5,811 townhomes without garages will receive 18-gallon bins. After receiving a bin or a cart residents may call (410) 313-6444 to request an exchange or a removal. Residents may still bag their recycling and then place the bags inside their bin or cart. Bagging recyclables can be useful in neighborhoods that use bins, particularly on windy days.

For more information about the County’s recycling program, visit the Bureau of Environmental Services’ Web page or call them at (410) 313-6444.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

People: Your Cars Are Not (A) Safe

Take those valuables with you!

From HoCo PD:

After a recent increase in vehicle break-ins around Howard County, police are reminding citizens not to leave valuable property inside their cars.

“While we are working to identify and arrest the various people responsible for these crimes, we are asking citizens to make their cars less appealing to thieves,” said Police Chief William J. McMahon. “Having valuables in plain view inside a vehicle makes it an attractive target for criminals.”

Since the beginning of the year, police have seen a 40 percent increase in thefts from vehicles. Thieves are breaking into cars to steal GPS units, laptop computers, stereos, iPods, purses, briefcases, cash and other property.

So far this year, the department has received 2,519 reports of thefts from vehicles. There were 1,800 reports during the same time period in 2007.

Investigators have seen the trend occurring in neighborhoods throughout the county and have already made arrests in cases in Elkridge, Columbia, Ellicott City and North Laurel. Police have assigned special squads to combat the issue, both undercover and in marked police cars, and have conducted crime prevention meetings and notifications by phone through the county’s automated Community Notification System. But the thefts are continuing, partly because the valuables are readily available to thieves.

“The police department has taken great effort to investigate and solve these cases, but they need the public’s help in preventing these crimes from happening in the first place,” said County Executive Ken Ulman. “It will take a real partnership between law enforcement and citizens to stop this rising trend, but I believe that partnership exists.”

Police are urging citizens to take valuables indoors whenever possible or to lock property in the trunk of the vehicle. Citizens also are reminded to always keep their vehicles locked. If possible, drivers should park cars in well-lit areas or locked garages.

Police also encourage citizens to maintain a record of serial numbers for their property and to engrave items with identifying information. These measures increase the likelihood of getting property returned if it is stolen.

“Let’s make it harder for the criminals,” said Chief McMahon. “If we all are vigilant about protecting our property, our community will be less attractive and less susceptible to thieves.”

Anyone with information about these crimes should call police at 410-313-3200.

Monday, October 6, 2008

School Board Finalizes Capital Wish List

The Sun says school officials last week approved their proposed capital budget (the one that pays for building and renovating stuff). The details in the story are real sparse. But it may not matter: the spending plan will undoubtedly be revised as the county and state work through their budget process in the coming months.

The Howard County Board of Education last night unanimously approved a record $125.3 million capital budget for the coming fiscal year that school officials say represents a shift from new construction to renovation.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Reporting From The Blogosphere

The Tales of Two Cities blog has some interesting reporting on the CA meeting earlier this week, as folks try to get a handle on General Growth's plans for downtown. "The Winds of Change" is a two parter; give a read here and here.

If anyone knows of any other good nuggets out there give us a shout.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Downtown Plans Submitted To County

Here we go.

From WaPo:

Developers formally proposed the most ambitious overhaul of downtown Columbia in its history yesterday, hoping to transform the four-decade-old planned community into a collection of modern, walkable, environmentally friendly neighborhoods with a new downtown.

General Growth Properties submitted a plan to Howard County officials that calls for 5,500 new townhouses and apartments and the construction of 1 million square feet of retail space over the next three decades in neighborhoods surrounding Columbia Town Center.

WaPo reminds us that GG owns 95 of the 110 acres that might be redeveloped. The ExploreHoward blog reports that there is no set timetable for actual construction (WaPo says GG would like to start in 2010, but the economy might have something to say about that) Buildings could be as tall as 20 stories; Merriweather would get a makeover:

The 82-page plan, which requires the approval of the County Council, calls for the creation of five distinct neighborhoods -- Warfield, The Lakefront, The Crescent, Merriweather and Symphony Overlook -- designed to incorporate a mix of residential, commercial and retail development to make the downtown area more urban and pedestrian-friendly. The neighborhoods would connect more directly with the Columbia mall, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Symphony Woods and Lake Kittamaqundi, with broad pedestrian walkways lined by shops, cafés, fountains and gardens.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

We Own The Post Office

From HoCo exec's PR shop....

ELLICOTT CITY – County Executive Ken Ulman has announced that Howard County Government has completed the acquisition of the U.S. Post Office building in Historic Ellicott City for $640,000. The building, located at 8267 Main Street, is on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties and is one of Preservation Howard County’s Top Ten Endangered Sites.

“I couldn’t be more pleased that the County now owns this beautiful, historic building on the Historic National Road,” said Ulman. “The purchase gives us an opportunity to preserve the historic character of Main Street, expand the Visitor Information Center, and, in the future, open up community meeting space and a possible police substation. This was definitely a collaborative effort, and I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to make it happen.”

“The acquisition of this property opens up a world of possibilities, and we’re very excited about that,” said Rachelina Bonnaci, Director of Tourism for Howard County. “With the added space, we will be able to create historical interpretation exhibits, showcase special event information, display brochures and maps and do a better job serving our visitors. I know how hard Executive Ulman and his staff worked on making this happen; we are confident their efforts will benefit the entire Howard County tourism industry.”