Friday, February 27, 2009

Lenders Now Oversee General Growth

General Growth said in a filing with the SEC that, because of its financial troubles, it has had to work out some temporary agreements with its lenders imposing "operational oversight on our operations."

In other words, the company is no longer in sole control of its destiny.

During 2008, the global economy entered into a significant downturn. For the domestic retail market, the recession has resulted in sales declines, reduced margins and cash flows and, for some of our tenants, bankruptcies. This, in turn, has yielded revenue and occupancy declines at our properties, as a function of terminations, reduced demand for rental space, and reductions in rents that can be charged and collected. Concurrently, the new and replacement commercial lending market has come to a virtual standstill. Accordingly, we have been unable to refinance or repay a number of our existing loans which had scheduled 2008 maturities, triggering certain cross-default provisions on certain other financing arrangements. To temporarily forestall foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings, we have entered into a number of short-term extension and forbearance agreements with our various lender groups (Note 1 — Liquidity). Such agreements have imposed lender operational oversight on our operations and, with respect to certain properties, have resulted in lender control of operational cash receipts. Accordingly, this annual report describes a number of risks and uncertainties concerning our future operations. Although we believe a forced liquidation is not likely, the potential for such a substantially adverse outcome to our current liquidity crisis raises substantial doubts as to our ability to continue as a going concern. We continue to work with our financial advisors and lender groups to reach a collectively satisfactory resolution of these liquidity and financing difficulties.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Teen Dies Of Flu

WJZ says the 15-year-old child lived in Mt Airy. He's one of nine pediatric flu deaths to be reported nationally this year, according to the Sun. Here's a link to WJZ's video.

CA Names A New Pres

UPDATE: The Sun finally snagged its intervu, and has details on the vote.

Board members said Nelson was a heavy favorite during the closed voting session Monday night.

"Phil gave us a very strategic vision and a nice, quiet Midwestern demeanor," O'Connor said. "It wasn't a close vote."

Read the full story here.

Here's the release from CA. The Sun says it is still seeking an interview. Hmmmmm.

The Columbia Association (CA) Board of Directors announces Phillip Nelson as the next president of the Columbia Association. This appointment comes after an 18-month selection process that involved community input from CA-assessed residents and businesses who were able to submit desired qualifications, attend public forums and have representation through the Board’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee. This committee helped the Board and DHR International, an executive search firm, in the recruitment, selection and interview process.

Phillip Nelson will begin as president of the Columbia Association May 1. He received a B.A. in political science from Fort Hays State University in 1971. His experience includes serving as city manager of Northglenn, Colo., from 2001 to 2006; city manager Derby, Kan., from 1988 to 2001; and county administrator of Barton County, Kan., from 1986 to 1988. Nelson is currently the city manager of Troy, Mich., where he has been employed since 2006.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Low-Cost Care Not An Easy Sell

WaPo put together a nice analysis of the Health Howard program this week.

Officials in Howard County thought their low-cost health-care program would be an easy sell in a community where an estimated 15,000 adults are without coverage. But nearly four months later, they are struggling to get people to enroll...

...John Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who studies health-care issues, said there is a long history of voluntary coverage programs that have failed because too few people enroll. The reasons run the gamut: People don't think they need coverage, don't know programs exist or don't have the money.

As Health Howard officials sorted through applicants, staff writer Lori Aratani reports, they discovered that many were eligible for other state or federal programs and directed them there instead. By the end of January, although more than 1,500 of the estimated 15,000 uninsured people in the county had coverage, only about 109 were receiving it through Healthy Howard.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Candidates Forum

The Sun offers its account of a candidates forum in Long Reach for the men who want to be CA's next president.

About 100 residents had their first chance at the public forum to see and hear the remaining contenders in a 20-month process that began with more than 500 candidates. But no one in the crowd got to speak to them directly.

Milton Matthews, CEO of the Reston Association; Phil Nelson, city manager of Troy, Mich.; and Rob Goldman, 19-year vice president of CA for sport and fitness, were escorted one at a time to a stage at the Long Reach Village community center. Each made a few opening remarks and then answered the same 10 questions during the 90-minute session. Each then left the building.

For those of us who could not make it we hope CA's Webmasters can post the full transcript -- or better yet make some video available.

Restaurant Weeks Are Here

Finally some welcome economic news:

Starting today through March 8 participating county restaurants will offer fixed priced menus from $10.09 to $40.09 (beverages, tax, gratuity not included; promotions and menus vary).

Find a list of eateries here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Reservoir Civility

Thanks to the ExploreHoward blog for pointing out this video by Reservoir High School students.

After reading Johns Hopkins University professor P.M. Forni’s book on the topic, the students created skits based on Forni’s rules of civility.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Your Flush Tax Dollars At Work

From HoCoGov:

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced today that the County has received a huge financial grant from the Maryland Department of the Environment to dramatically improve the water quality in the Little Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay. Howard County is receiving $35.5 million from the state for improvements and upgrades to the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant; the project is expected to cost almost $100 million.

“This is an incredible financial commitment from the State to dramatically improve the water quality in the Little Patuxent River and the Bay,” said Ulman. “But the real thanks goes to the citizens of Howard County who are paying for these improvements thru the ‘flush tax.’ These improvements are urgently needed and will make a dramatic difference.”

In particular this grant money will focus on installing state-of-the-art equipment to implement a strategy called Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR) at the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant. High levels of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous), as well as sediments, have been destroying the Little Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay for years.

...The project is expected to begin in mid-2009.

HoCoMoJo Vid-e-o Premier

Here's HoCoMoJo's first try at a video news story. Compare it to coverage by the Flier. Or TV. We bet the local news channels have not produced a 9 minute 52 second piece on HoCo's "Health Howard" initiative.

We only wish HoCo Exec Ulman would read a little slower -- and with feeling.

Kickball's Tax Problem

WaPo recently did a piece on how more employers and state governments are challenging the unemployment claims of the people let go. The HowardExplore blog has another take on that trend. Apparently, the state says a local umpires organization should pay unemployment taxes. HoCo State Del. Allan Kittleman is sponsoring a bill exempting recreational sports officials from coverage under Maryland’s Unemployment Insurance Law.

The problems for the Howard County Officials, which officiates for four organizations, including Howard County Recreation and Parks softball and kickball games, began in November, when one referee lost his full-time job and filed for unemployment, according to state officials.

The unemployment form listed Howard County Officials Inc. as one of the referee’s employers, causing auditors to delve into the group’s books, which led to a state demand for $15,700 in unpaid unemployment taxes.

“We have about $3,000 in our account,” said Richard McCauley, the organization’s vice president. “If we have to pay this, we will have to dissolve.”

McCauley said the umpires in his organization have always considered themselves independent contractors, not employees of the group. He said individual umpires are free to accept or decline any game and are paid on a game-by-game basis.

“No one has ever been fired from umpiring; anyone is free to perform the job, provided they take a training course,” he said.

There's one fact that seems to bear further reporting: They have paid umpires at kickball games?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Twitter MoJo

WaPo and the Sun have closed their bureaus, and the Examiner is no more. So what is to become of local news?

HoCoMoJo offers its tantalizing answer. For now, news bits arrive by Twitter. But the site promises "collaborative community news through articles, radio shows, photographs, and video reports" beginning April 1.

Hopefully, that's no joke.

Flower Power

We love our Twitter followers. We recently wondered aloud what to do when a dozen roses arrived one short. The florist was kind enough to offer to drive the missing petals out promptly. Here's what the Twitter gang suggested:

# macsmom @columbiatalk If for you, nothing. If for a loved one, I'd go get a single one and give it later as a romantic gesture. And talk to florist! 11:09 AM yesterday from web in reply to columbiatalk

# Chris Bachmannchrisbachmann @columbiatalk "The economy must be really rough. They were downsized on the way here." 10:00 AM yesterday from TweetDeck in reply to columbiatalk

# Kate Dinodinosaurmom @columbiatalk Even numbers of flowers are bad luck in Russian tradition, so I'd say be grateful. 9:23 AM yesterday from web in reply to columbiatalk

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

That Sniffly, Achy Feeling Returns

The number of influenza cases are beginning to tick up in Maryland, according to this Sun story.

And we thought the bug might pass us by:

Public health and hospital officials say that seasonal influenza, with all its aches, fevers and assorted other agonies, is indeed on the increase in Maryland this month, with a peak due in the next three or four weeks.....

....Melissa Cyr sat in [Dr. David del Rosario's Glen Burnie] examining room yesterday afternoon, waiting for her flu test. She looked weak, flushed and very unhappy. The 16-year-old from Columbia was brought to the clinic by her father, city paramedic Craig Cyr, after she fell ill over the weekend.

On Sunday, she said, "I woke up, sat up and got really woozy, and the room was spinning. My dad came into my room, and I was really shivering."

She slept from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then complained of weakness and trouble breathing. "Every time I try to take a deep breath, I cough," she said. Her appetite had fled.

Del Rosario took samples to test her for influenza and strep throat and planned an X-ray to look for pneumonia.

He estimated that 30 percent of the people he has seen recently with respiratory complaints have turned out to have influenza. And while their symptoms have not been any worse than in past years, patients are coming in with more complications.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

So You Want To Be President

From CA:

The Columbia Association (CA) Board of Directors, along with the Board’s Citizens Advisory Committee and DHR International, has narrowed their search for a new president to lead the Columbia Association. This selection follows a process that began in February 2008, when the Board hosted its first president forum soliciting input from residents on what qualifications and experience they would like in the next CA president. In October 2008, members of the community were sought to participate in the Board’s Citizens Advisory Committee to aid in the selection of CA’s next president. This committee has helped the board and DHR International, an executive search firm, in the recruitment, selection and interview process for the next CA president.

The three final candidates are as follows:

· Rob Goldman , vice-president and director of CA’s Sport & Fitness division

Rob received a B.A. in English from Trinity University and has previously served as president of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

· Milton Matthews , president of the Reston Association

Milton received a B.A. in government and history from Virginia Union, an M.P.A. from Syracuse University and a master’s in city and regional planning from Ohio State University .

· Phillip Nelson, city manager of Troy , Michigan

Phillip received a B. A. in political science from Fort Hayes University and an M.P.A. from Wichita State University .

The Board will host a presidential candidate forum on Sunday, Feb. 22 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Stonehouse in the Long Reach Village Center wherein all three candidates will be introduced to the public. The forum will allow community members to hear the presidential candidates address questions from CA residents, and a final presidential selection will be made in the days following the event. Those who would like to submit questions for presidential candidates may do so via an online form at . No questions may be asked the day of the forum. All questions must be submitted in advance through the online form. Questions must be submitted by Thursday, Feb. 19 at 11:59 p.m. CA will officially welcome its new president on May 1.

Friday, February 13, 2009

CA Wary Of Symphony Woods Land Swap

We're a little late getting to this. CA told HoCo planners last week that it does not favor the idea of swapping land in the heart of Symphony Woods with land elsewhere.

CA’s position is acre-for-acre replacement of parkland would only be acceptable if it is consistent with CA’s vision and plan for Symphony Woods. Of primary importance to CA is the future of Symphony Woods. CA wants to protect the woodlands and create a park setting that is more user-friendly. CA is concerned that the two large buildings, underground parking, and several roads proposed for Symphony Woods are in direct contradiction to CA’s vision. Because CA is very concerned about the removal of many trees in Symphony Woods and wants to preserve the integrity of the parkland, CA does not agree with exchanging existing land in the heart of Symphony Woods for other land. CA agrees with the proposal for an attractive connection between The Mall and Merriweather Post Pavilion. However, a proposed cultural arts center should be included in the Lakefront neighborhood. In addition, we would like to advise you CA is working with consultants on creating proposals for a revitalized park in Symphony Woods, which will be available for public review in April.

CA also endorsed a proposal to study whether there is a need for a pedestrian/cyclist/bus shuttle bridge over US 29 connecting Downtown
with Oakland Mills

Maybe that would bring some new traffic -- and development interest -- to the OM village center.

Here's a link to CA's Feb. 5 testimony.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sun Closes Howard Bureau

This follows a similar move by WaPo.

From AP:

Sun Editor J. Montgomery “Monty” Cook announced the moves in a staff meeting Thursday afternoon, said Brent Jones, a Sun reporter and a unit chair with the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.

Cook and a Sun spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment.

The Sun is ending lease agreements for its office space in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, Jones said. About 15 reporters and editors will move into the newspaper’s downtown office and will continue to cover their suburban beats, he said.

Bain Center To Open - Sorta

From HoCo:

Howard County’s Bain Center will re-open on Tuesday, February 17, as originally projected; however, the computer lab, exercise studio and wood shop are still undergoing repairs and will re-open at a later date. The Center was temporarily closed in late January after a broken water pipe caused significant water damage.

The computer lab is scheduled to re-open by February 23, minimizing any further impact on the tax assistance program and computer classes. For information or to schedule an appointment for free AARP Tax preparation assistance, call 410-313-7387.

For information about activities at The Bain Center call 410-313-7213, Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.

Ask The President

No, not Obama...the other president, the future one who will lead CA. Submit your questions online by midnight Feb. 19!

We saw this on several local listservs:

On May 1, 2009 the Columbia Association officially welcomes a new president. To prepare for this event, the CA Board of Directors will host a presidential candidate forum on Sunday, February 22 from 2 to 4pm at Stonehouse in the Long Reach Village Center. This is a great opportunity for community members to hear CA presidential hopefuls address questions from CA residents. Individuals living or working on CA-assessed property are encouraged to submit questions prior to the forum via an online form here. Submissions will be taken until 11:59pm on Thursday, February 19. No questions may be asked the day of the forum. All questions must be submitted in advance through the online form above, and selected questions will be compiled and provided to candidates on the day of the event. For more information, please call the presidential candidate forum hotline at 410-715-3126.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ulman Changes Chief of Staff

From HoCo PR:

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced today that Aaron Greenfield will be resigning from his position as Chief of Staff to accept a job as Director of Government Affairs with Duane Morris, LLP, an international law firm. Ulman also announced that his longtime Senior Advisor, Jessica Feldmark, has been appointed as the County’s new Chief of Staff.

“I make this announcement with mixed feelings,” said Executive Ulman. “While I will miss Aaron’s counsel and expertise in all facets of government, I am incredibly fortunate that Jessica has agreed to step into this critical position. Both Aaron and Jessica have played a huge part in the successes we have had.”

Greenfield was one of the first appointments to the Ulman Administration and he has played a large role in many of the County’s signature initiatives over the past two years.

“I am proud of the accomplishments we have made over the last 24 months,” said Greenfield. “The County Executive has been gracious in sharing the credit, but let me be clear on this, Ken is the driving force on our progress. Anybody that has dealt with this Administration already knows Jessica and knows how incredibly talented she is ---both County citizens and County employees will be well served.”

“I am honored that Executive Ulman has chosen me for this demanding role. These are certainly tough economic times, but I look forward to the challenges of continuing to deliver efficient, effective government to the citizens of Howard County,” said Feldmark.

Feldmark will begin her new role this coming Tuesday, February 17.

Another Village Center Setback

Plans to inject a little life into the Oakland Mills Village Center are on hold again. A developer that was going to erect an office building, with a little help from the county in the form of a lease, has pulled out of the project, according to this ExploreHoward story.

Metroventures/USA Inc., the Baltimore company developing the site, recently told the county it decided to drop the project after failing to get an extension on its contract to buy the land. A Jan. 8 letter to the county from the developer states that special conditions the county placed on the project delayed the developer’s ability to secure financing and complete the land purchase.

ExxonMobil, the land’s owner, is putting the property back on the market, the letter states. Olusola Seriki, president of Metroventures, and officials with ExxonMobil did not return calls for comment.

It's been a long, long time since Exxon yanked out its pumps and left the village, and there's been little talk about anything happening with the former Giant or Produce Galore sites in Wilde Lake, not to mention assorted vacancies elsewhere.

If the private sector cannot provide a little stimulus, who will?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Is Snowden River Our Main St.?

The Columbia Mall is getting some competition. The locals are complaining about rush-hour traffic jams on Snowden River Parkway and county officials are laying plans to widen the road between Route 108 and Broken Land Parkway, according to this Sun story.

The road has seen a lot of development in recent years and more is to come, what with Wegman's and two hotels on the drawing board. The Sun says the county planning board is scheduled to review plans to widen the road on Thursday.

So far, $450,000 has been allocated for a third lane and sidewalks on the northbound side of the parkway up to Oakland Mills Road. Construction money is scheduled for fiscal 2011. In addition, $100,000 is scheduled to be spent in the budget year starting July 1 for planning a remake of the intersection of Broken Land and Snowden River.

At Thursday's hearing, scheduled for 7 p.m. in the county's temporary offices at 8930 Stanford Blvd., two projects will be reviewed.

One, for the coming fiscal year, would allocate $500,000 to engineer a third lane on both sides of the parkway from Oakland Mills to Route 108. The other would schedule $250,000 in the fiscal 2012 budget for planning the extra lane on the southbound side from Oakland Mills to Broken Land. Construction there would begin in fiscal 2015.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bloggin' In Owen Brown

And we thought we were local. Owen Brown residents, or really anyone on the Columbia scene, should find the new blog Owen Brown News useful.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Police Raid Draws Complaint

A pair of recent HoCo police raids in search of a department gun, ammunition and other items stolen from two marked police cruisers apparently failed to turn up the missing gear. Instead, the tactical squad allegedly left the homeowner with a sprained wrist, a dead dog, a bullet hole in his bed and a 12-year-old daughter who is scared every time she hears a knock on the door, according to this HoCo Times story.

Police claimed the dog, an Australian cattle dog, charged officers.

The Elkridge homeowner told the Times he has filed a complaint.

Move Along Please

Roadside beggars are a nuisance. Politicians not so much. At least that's what might be inferred from this Flier story saying the county's state legislative delegation approved eight bills for consideration this session, including another attempt to install cameras to catch speeders, and a bill to ban curbside solicitors on state roads.

The no solicitation bill is similar to laws passed for Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties in previous legislative sessions.

Approved by the delegation at its Feb. 4 meeting in Annapolis, the Howard bill includes amendments that would allow people to stand along roads holding political signs. The amendments were aimed at addressing complaints from former political candidates worried about losing a “proven, effective” method of campaigning.

The bill will now be taken up by the House of Delegates, though no hearing schedule has been set yet.

Regarding the camera bill, Del. Gail Bates, a western Howard Republican, is trying to draft an amendment to steer any revenue from fines to charity.

Bates said the change is aimed at addressing complaints that the cameras "are nothing more than another tax."

When other lawmakers rejected her amendment because they considered it poorly worded, the bill was tabled to give her the chance to come up with better wording.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fire Chief To Retire, Turn Off Blackberry

From HoCo Gov PR:

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced today that Chief Joseph Herr will be retiring as head of the County Department of Fire and Rescue Services on March 1, 2009. Herr has served as the head of this agency since December 2000. “I have been a firefighter for 38 years, and it’s a career I am quite proud of,” said Chief Herr. “I am honored to have had the privilege to serve the citizens of Howard County as Chief these past eight years and to lead the fine men and women of this department.”

“You would be hard pressed to find a more decent, honest public servant than Joe Herr,” said County Executive Ulman. “Whether it was fighting fires, responding to medical emergencies, or coordinating emergency preparedness, Joe has played a big part in bringing this department into the 21st century.”

Chief Herr began his career as a firefighter in 1971 with the Beltsville (Md.) Volunteer Fire Department. He went on to work in the District of Columbia’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department for 26 years. During his career Herr has literally worked his way up; he has served as a firefighter, a Sergeant, a Lieutenant, a Captain, a Battalion Chief, a Deputy Chief, an Assistant Chief, and finally as the Fire Chief. He holds a degree from the University of Maryland, a Masters from Johns Hopkins University, and has completed several safety and management courses, including the prestigious Senior Executive Fellowship from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Chief Herr has been actively involved in regional domestic preparedness issues through the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI.)

“Joe has agreed to stay on as Chief for the next month, and I have already asked for his input on finding the right person to lead us in the future,” said County Executive Ulman.

Chief Herr added, “I am looking forward to sleeping without an emergency radio and a BlackBerry on my nightstand.”

Is Slots Gamble Paying Off?

WaPo has an interesting story about efforts by state leaders to bring slot machines to Maryland.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says we all might have to start preparing for the reality that slots revenue will not meet expectations in coming years, when the program was expected to yield more than $600 million a year for education programs.

The plan envisioned slots venues at five sites in Allegany, Anne Arundel, Cecil and Worcester counties and Baltimore. On Monday, the commission handling bids announced that it had received six bids for 10,550 machines. Commission Chairman Donald Fry lowered that figure to 6,550 yesterday and said the commission will discuss the status of two bidders next week.

One of those facing disqualification is the Maryland Jockey Club, which has proposed putting slots at its Laurel Park racetrack in Anne Arundel. If disqualified, that would leave one other bid for the Anne Arundel site: a proposal by Baltimore-based Cordish to put 4,750 machines at Arundel Mills Mall, which is stirring controversy.

And there's this little curious fact in the story about the six "competitive" bidders:

If the two bidders are disqualified, the state will be left with four applicants, with one each for four of the five authorized sites.

State leaders, including Gov. O'Malley are counseling patience, the story says. And some are thinking about ways to encourage more participation.

Some lawmakers have raised the possibility of letting operators keep a greater percentage of earnings to make the sites more attractive. The law allows operators to keep 33 percent, one of the lowest shares in the country.

Is this what voters expected when they approved the slots referendum?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Save The Rain...

...and help restore our open space watersheds. That seems to be the message coming from CA these days as folks work on a plan to restore the streams and lakes. CA now has a watershed site that offers some baseline information on the condition of the waterways and some very basic tips on what homeowners can do to help.

With all the water our sump pump kicks out these days we're thinking we could use a rain garden or one of those rain barrels.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stocking Up On Sweaters

At Columbia Talk headquarters we have one of those programmable thermostats that allow us to turn the heat waaaaay down at night and when we are typically not home. Still we've been surprised at the jump in our monthly BGE bill. And apparently we are not alone, according to this column by the Sun's Jay Hancock.

Metro Baltimore is freezing, worried about the recession and wondering why BGE bills are higher than ever even as the cost of gasoline, electricity and other energy has plunged.

Blame a cold winter and BGE's purchase of electricity last year when energy prices were hitting record heights. The popped energy bubble should eventually mean moderately lower BGE bills.

"In 2010, I think we'll see in the range of 5 to 10 percent potential drops in retail electric rates," says Mark Case, BGE's senior vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs. Natural gas rates could go down by much more.