Howard County Executive Ken Ulman reminded a large audience of business and community leaders this week that he had been in office just 77 days. But as he listed his administration's early initiatives in technology, the environment and public health, he promised, "We are going to take some risks."
It's a message that, so far, seems to play well with members of the business community.
"We are looking to a real strong partnership with Ken," said Del Karfonta, executive vice president of the Columbia Bank and board chairman for the county's Chamber of Commerce. "I think he's going to be a good communicator. I think he emphasizes that."
In delivering his first State of the County address, Ulman (D) followed tradition and spoke at the chamber's annual luncheon Tuesday, before a crowd of about 350 at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center west of Ellicott City. Ulman was scheduled to repeat his remarks for the public at government offices in Ellicott City on Tuesday evening.
The upbeat mood at the chamber luncheon was spurred not only by the thaw in wintry temperatures but also by announcements that two major businesses were launching multimillion-dollar ventures. Merkle, a database marketing agency, is relocating from Lanham to the Columbia Gateway business park and is creating for its hundreds of employees a $65 million corporate headquarters campus, with construction starting this spring.
Also, the Washington office of Trammell Crow Co., a developer and real estate investment firm, is building a $60 million, seven-story speculative office building on 15 acres at Columbia Gateway overlooking Interstate 95, with groundbreaking scheduled for summer.
Ulman touted these moves as evidence of Howard's strong drawing power, but he also warned that its desirability has sharpened demands on government. He described crowded libraries, a crash-prone county computer system, an escalating school building budget and an understaffed police department. On top of that, the county faces a financial obligation to fully fund the retirement health-care benefits of its employees.
"The budget is where the challenge of balancing competing interests hits hard," he said.
In the meantime, Ulman stressed his administration's initial steps. Upgrading the county's computer technology is a priority, he said, recounting how he and his wife experienced long delays online trying to register their daughter for summer camp.
"Let me be clear, my wife is the most important constituent I serve," he said to laughter.
He described his newly created Commission on the Environment and Sustainability, a group that will recommend best environmental practices for government operations. Ulman also has committed the county to participating in the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which describes ways communities can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to slow global warming.
"I plan to protect Howard County's environment aggressively," he said.
Ulman's reach is wide-ranging. He said he wants to develop a model public health program with Peter Beilenson, his nominee for county health officer. The county executive is even attempting to broker a compromise on a controversial high-rise condominium, the Plaza Residences, planned for downtown Columbia.
"I have instructed our team to try new things -- that bold, innovative ideas have a place in government, and a home in Howard County," he said.
"He's right -- these are the type of things we do have to do," said Pamela J. Klahr, president and chief executive of the chamber. She praised Ulman for making sure in his first steps "that business does have a voice and is not lost."