It is late September, a few minutes past noon, and from the window of his fourth-floor corner office, Chuck Kanach watches some of his employees jog on the path below. He looks out at the trees -- hundreds of them that neatly hem the office park -- and muses, though not to anyone in particular, how one of the hottest growth areas in Maryland can be so eerily quiet.
"You would never guess where we're at, just by looking outside," says the Magellan Health Services executive vice-president of corporate operations.
The community is Columbia, in the heart of Howard County. With its population hovering near 75,000 and its work force strengthening daily, it is what Kanach calls the "quintessential edge city."
That may be, but there's nothing marginal about Howard County's economic growth. Dominated by Columbia, the utopian planned community mapped out in the 1960s by James Rouse, Howard County today is garnering a reputation as an incubator for some of the state's hottest companies and as a magnet for corporate headquarters.
At the same time, as Howard's economy begins to emulate the regional juggernauts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia, it also is experiencing the growing pains of rapid development and heavy traffic, tainting the community flavor that made it a success in the first place.
The area outside Kanach's office is a prime example. Just a few years ago it was green grass and rolling hills. Today it is Columbia Gateway, a sprawling corporate park that is home to some of Maryland's fastest-growing technology companies and several corporate headquarters. Thirty major companies are housed on the 584 acres of the park.
In Columbia Gateway, for example, are two companies -- consumer debt management firm Amerix Corp. and fiber-optics company Corvis Corp. -- that are expected to hire thousands more workers in the next five years. Five years ago, neither existed.
Howard's recent job growth rate has outpaced that of Montgomery County, its wealthy neighbor to the south. According to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Howard had a 6 percent increase in jobs from 1997 to 1998. Montgomery had a 3.9 percent increase for the same period.
By comparison, job growth in Loudoun County from 1997 to 1998 was 8.2 percent. In Fairfax County, the growth rate was 5.3 percent. Howard's unemployment rate is less than 2 percent, on par with Northern Virginia.
Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, said that Howard is "one of the fastest-growing counties in real numbers and percentages. What we're doing is matching these new jobs much better with the current labor force."
In three years the county's population has grown to 253,500 from 220,000. Its work force, at 131,400 in 1995, is now at 149,500.
Part of the county's success, said Richard Story, director of the county's Economic Development Authority, is its ability to attract employers and employees based on those all-important factors: location, location, location.
"We see [Columbia] as having been here all along," he said. "Now it's being seen outside of the county as the place to move to."
Last year the county welcomed 12 headquarters to the area. And in the past six months, two billion-dollar companies -- Magellan Health Services Inc. and W.R. Grace & Co. -- have transferred their corporate headquarters to Columbia, moves that are expected to create up to 600 jobs. County officials hope that will let more Howard County residents work in their own communities rather than commute to Washington or Baltimore. Indeed, capitalizing on Howard's location between the two cities is part of the county's economic growth strategy.
But with many residents still commuting to jobs outside the county, and more workers commuting into Howard to the newly created jobs, traffic congestion has increased on what once were lightly traveled roads. In Columbia, some residents have grown concerned, saying the community is no longer what it used to be. But many say it has become what they always thought it would.
"From Day One, even before the bulldozers came, I knew it was going to happen," said Sarah Uphouse, a resident of Columbia since 1972. "It was always just a matter of when. When would these people begin to come and change the face of this place?"
A Clear Choice
For Magellan Health, the decision was easy.
The task -- to move its corporate headquarters from Atlanta to a place where operations could run smoothly, a place that was easy to travel to for clients and where employees would enjoy living -- came down to a very short list of cities, including Salt Lake City and St. Louis.
"But it was simply Columbia," Kanach said. "Here we are midway between Baltimore and Washington, and we get the pull from literally five to six other counties, plus we're 15 miles from an airport. It's perfect, really."
The proximity to Baltimore, which is 15 miles away, and to the District, which is 32 miles away, is one of the main drawing cards for companies that move to Howard. Two others are the county's Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the area's tranquillity.
As Howard's combination of the suburban with the rural attracts more employers, the county's economic status in the state is being elevated.
"We like the ambience of where we're located. But it's more than that. We feel appreciated and cared for here," said John P. McDaniel, chief executive of Columbia-based MedStar Health, a hospital operator that is the sixth-largest private company in the region. "It's as though our contributions make a difference."
The Columbia business community has developed its own identity, distinct from those in Washington and Baltimore. Clyde's restaurant in Columbia has become the center of business lunch activity, with CEOs at tables once populated almost exclusively by real estate agents.
Within the next 15 years, Story said, all of the land zoned for residential development is expected to be filled. The commercial space, though still plentiful now, should be built out within 20 to 30 years, he said.
"We'll either have to hang out a sign that says Howard County is closed for business or make some changes in the density of the already-developed areas," Story said.
It was not always so.
In 1963, when Rouse Co. bought about 14,000 acres -- one-tenth of the county's land -- on which to build Columbia, Howard County was almost entirely farmland. In setting up the planned community, Rouse promised that more than 5,000 acres would be set aside for parks, playgrounds and open space.
"It's what I like best," said Shirley Collier, who moved to Columbia 15 years ago from Louisiana. "I fell in love with the area. There's still a lot of open land and parks, and then there's still many businesses that can thrive."
Collier, who with her husband owns Columbia-based Paragon Computer Services, a systems integrator and electronic commerce consultancy, said the area's growth has been gradual. "I really like that they protect the farmland," she said.
Even when a community emphasizes open spaces, typical suburban problems can arise, said Michael Southworth, a professor of city and regional landscape architectural planning at the University of California at Berkley.
Southworth said that as planned communities are flooded with commuters, traffic congestion and lack of an adequate transit system eventually become problems.
What eventually occurs, he said, is a gradual shift from a shared public space toward commercial development, which leads to a declining sense of a public realm. "It's just really important to develop a plan that deals with public space," he said. "People say, `What happened? All we came here for is gone.' "
Columbia's original planners said such development is inevitable in the modern world.
"Things just change," said Robert Tennenbaum, one of the 1963 planners of Columbia. "It's the way things work out, and we have to adjust with the new economics."
Longtime Columbia resident Uphouse said the biggest change for her village, Harper's Choice, where Route 175 and Snowden River Parkway intersect, has been a substantial increase in traffic. "The traffic impacts us the most" of all the growth factors, she said.
But Story said the county is "not seeing a big difference" as far as traffic snarls. Nonetheless, the county is having capacity problems and is planning to widen some roads, including Route 29 and Route 32.
"We're budgeting for it," Story said. "The bulk of traffic is pass-through traffic, with people trying to get somewhere else."
Land-use issues will take on more urgency in Howard if the pace of development continues. Jim Robey, the county executive, said renovating land already in use is perhaps the best way to deal with the growth, and that a land renovation plan is being drafted.
"I don't want to run out of this very important land," Robey said. "When you look at commercial development, that's what pays the freight. It's what keeps this standard of living up."
And the standards are pretty high in Howard County, which has a median income of $68,800. More than 90 percent of the work force has at least a high school diploma, and for the past seven years the education system has been rated the best in Maryland and among the best in the nation.
The median income in Columbia, about $63,000, is far below that in some smaller towns in the county. Clarksville's 18,400 people, for example, have a median income of $97,732, and in Ellicott City, the county seat with a population of almost 50,000 people, the median income is about $70,000.
But only about 33 percent of Howard's work force is employed in the county. Howard expects to end the decade with a 50 percent increase in jobs from 1990, so it has little to complain about. But despite the growth, about 84,000 people "still get up and commute to their jobs," Story said.
So officials are redoubling their efforts to lure Howard residents to employment in the county and to get current employees who live elsewhere to set up house in Howard.
Part of the initiative is a new World Wide Web site sponsored by the Economic Development Authority, www.howardjobs.com, which helps commuters find an employment match closer to home. Anyone hoping to snag a job in Howard can visit the site, which lists available positions at companies in the county.
"In its first week it received more than 2,000 hits," Rutter said. "From what I've heard it's been a tremendous success."
From Goods to People
Columbia's growth began with warehouses, lots of them, being drawn to the area in the late 1980s by its easy access to eight-lane Interstate 95 and BWI. Bigger companies slowly began to follow.
"To go from goods being stored to actual people working is something exciting," said Edward Ely, vice president and director of land sales and marketing at Rouse Co.
Paul Norris, chief executive of W.R. Grace & Co., said Howard County was the most convenient location for his company to move to. The chemical company has set up shop at Grace Park, a 150-acre site built for its research and corporate operations, after moving its headquarters from Boca Raton, Fla. The company has hired 40 people since opening its doors last month, bringing the total of Maryland employees to 1,100.
Companies such as Grace will, for good or ill, determine the future of Columbia.
"One of our key strategies is to grow, and if we grow the way we want to, then there will be more available positions for county residents," Norris said.
Officials at Rouse, which is better known now for its retail development than for its residential projects, said the county's success was inevitable.
"What we did was take the geographical advantages of the county and make it into something it would have naturally been, with it being so close to Baltimore and Washington," said Al Scavo, Rouse senior vice president and director of community development. "We just pushed it along quicker."
By the Numbers
1997 household income
$75,000 + 28.2%
$50,000 to $74,999 30.3%
$25,000 to $49,999 28.3%
$15,000 to $24,999 7.2%
Under $15,000 6%
Job growth in Maryland suburbs, 1990 to 1998
Baltimore County 27,426
Anne Arundel 16,898
St. Mary's 9,002
Washington Co. 8,771
Source: Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation; Howard County Economic Development Authority