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Keeping Pace In An Evolving Economy

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Aaron Tomarchio
Provided by Baltimore Metropolitan Council
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and Aaron Tomarchio

Howard County Executive Dr. Calvin Ball and Aaron Tomarchio, Senior Vice-President of Corporate Affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic, talk about how the Baltimore region is building a 21st century economy through the marriage of new technologies with blue collar history.

The podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of local governments serving central Maryland, with assistance from WYPR.


Tom Hall: Welcome to The Chesapeake Connect Podcast. I'm Tom Hall. Chesapeake Connect is an annual learning trip that brings together leaders from around Baltimore to explore best practices and programs and appear region. It's organized by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the council of governments serving greater Baltimore. The council has organized trips to Cleveland, New Orleans and Nashville in recent years.

Today on the Chesapeake Connect Podcast, we're talking about how government and business leaders are keeping pace in an evolving economy and how well-positioned the region is for the future of work and development. I'm joined by Howard County Executive, Calvin Ball. County Executive Ball is a Maryland native and Columbia resident, where he and his wife Shani are parents of two daughters who attend Howard County public schools. In 2006, he was elected the youngest Council Chairperson in Howard County history. And in 2018, he became Howard County's first African American County Executive. He also attended the 2019 Chesapeake Connect trip to Nashville. County Executive Ball, welcome. Good to talk to you.

Calvin Ball: Well, thank you so much for having me and great to be here.

Tom Hall: And we are also joined by Aaron Tomarchio. He's the Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic, where he directs external relations, including government and regulatory affairs, public and community relations and corporate marketing activities. In the past, he's served in executive roles in state and local government and as a senior advisor to numerous state and local elected officials. Aaron Tomarchio and Tradepoint Atlantic sponsored the 2017 Chesapeake Connect trip to Cleveland.

Aaron was also scheduled to attend the 2020 trip to the Twin Cities, which didn't happen because of COVID-19. Aaron Tomarchio, thank you for joining us on The Chesapeake Connect Podcast.

Aaron Tomarchio: Great. Thank you for having me.

Tom Hall: So County Executive Ball, let's start with you. A few episodes ago here on the Chesapeake Connect podcast, we heard from Greg Fitchitt, who is overseeing the downtown Columbia redevelopment for The Howard Hughes Corporation. In your view, from your perspective, what does this redevelopment mean for the economy of Howard County and for the region at large?

Calvin Ball: Well, it is an exciting time for Columbia, Howard County and the region. Columbia is now over 50 years old, and it is a planned community that is known throughout, frankly, entire United States. However, the founder, Jim Rouse always talked about his vision. And one of the things that he said was, "Cities must be fun." And Columbia is embracing that. We have a downtown Columbia plan that is not just a plan on the shelf, but it is coming to life. And it's a living plan. And Columbia being central to Howard County, it really makes it so that the plan is thoughtful and it unfolds for retail, storefront, offices, housing, office space, and at the same time being more walkable and bikeable. And we've seen so many regional businesses join us in Howard County and new retail and storefront locations. In fact, just earlier this month, The Charmery opened in downtown Columbia, and it is a delicious ice cream experience. And we have on the horizon, the largest Busboys and Poets to open in May of this year.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And those are two terrific organizations. I mean, The Charmery here in Baltimore is a very favorite spot for lots of folks. And in the Washington area, Busboys and Poets, another really great favorite of the locals there.

So Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint Atlantic is in Southeast Baltimore County. It represents a very different type of redevelopment in our region. So, for our listeners who are unfamiliar with Tradepoint Atlantic, tell us about the history of the project and what's happening there currently.

Aaron Tomarchio: Great, thank you. Well, there's a lot of exciting activity happening here in Southeastern Baltimore County. And what we're doing, since 2014, is attempting to redevelop the former Sparrows Point Steel mill site. You're looking at 3,200 acres industrially zoned, right at the footsteps of Baltimore city and the port of Baltimore. And for those that are not entirely familiar with the history of Sparrows Point, there was a wonderful podcast that was done as a joint project between WYPR and the Baltimore Museum of Industry called Sparrows Point American Steel Story.

So there's a great opportunity for your listeners to become more familiar with the Sparrows Point story and how Tradepoint Atlantic is working to redevelop this site to serve today's economy that is really dependent upon distribution, manufacturing and logistics. Specifically, the activity that's happening with the growing Port of Baltimore. So we're very excited to be part of this transformation.

Tom Hall: Yeah, a place of deep, wonderful history. And Aaron Henkin, who put together that wonderful podcast series about Sparrows point, did a terrific job telling that story. And now you're, of course, writing a new chapter in that area of Southeast Baltimore County.

And County Executive Ball, of course, Howard County's history is largely agricultural. You mentioned that you're basically celebrating your 50th anniversary these days. But in the last, say, 20 years or so, the County has become a hub for high-end engineering and programming jobs. In such a competitive industry, what is Howard County doing to make sure that it can stay ahead of the curve in attracting and retaining tech and engineering workers in that sector?

Calvin Ball: Great question. Here in Howard County, we were known largely to be agricultural. And in recent years we still have a very growing and exciting agricultural industry. However, we also are focused on technology and in our transformation and reinvention of our local economy, making sure that we have tools for entrepreneurs and technology workers to succeed in Howard County and really feed this economic development ecosystem.

We have our Maryland Innovation Center, which is home to 27 entrepreneurs and combines in-house expertise with established technology and business leadership resources, while fostering small business growth for the entire corridor. And the Innovation Center also represents one of the many opportunities we have to make Howard County a hub for technology and entrepreneurship and anticipate not only the impacts of this pandemic will have on the nature and focus of business moving forward, but how to get out of this onto the road to recovery.

And so, we are focused on apprenticeships and entrepreneurship and new ideas, but also Howard County is very well known, not just throughout the region, the nation, but the world for our education system. We have our public school system, which is one of the best in the nation, and it brings families of highly skilled, educated, workforce from all over the world. We have our community college which actually was one of the very only community colleges to win the Baldrige Award. And it's at the forefront of fostering a tech workforce. And they actually just recently teamed up with AT&T to expand apprenticeships. And we continue to work on building our being named Safest City in America for the third year in a row and being named top five on Money magazine's Best Places to Live. And really helping people to understand that we are an attractive place to live, work, play, and do business.

Tom Hall: Yeah. You know, and that's a lot of really, really great selling points to attracting a good workforce to Howard County. And Aaron Tomarchio, Tradepoint Atlantic, you all do a lot of recruiting to find employees for the tenants at Tradepoint. So during this pandemic, the transportation and logistics industry has actually been one of the few industries to increase its workforce. Are you working to recruit from the communities who have traditionally worked at Sparrows Point? I mean, are you doing anything specifically to attract the folks who, in the past, relied on jobs at Sparrows Point in the steel industry?

Aaron Tomarchio: Absolutely. We're working every day with our partners in Baltimore County and within the Community Colleges of Baltimore County, CCBC, to identify potential workers to be able to come in and work at the many diverse jobs that are taking shape here at Tradepoint Atlantic. CCBC just recently announced the opening of their Transportation Training Program right here on-site at Tradepoint Atlantic. Where people can come and be trained in a multitude of capabilities in the transportation, distribution, logistics sector. Including receiving your CDL license, which is something that is very much needed right now, the shortage of CDL drivers. And we do an effort to work within the local community to get the word out about the openings within our tenant and host local job fairs right here on-site, where people can come to Tradepoint Atlantic when we have a job fair and meet directly with employers that are looking to hire.

So it's a great partnership that involves our tenants, Community College of Baltimore County and Baltimore County Workforce Development. And it's a great tool because I can tell you, as part of the site selection process that companies look at when they come here, is, does the region have a robust workforce be able to pull from? And we like to say here in Baltimore region, that that is very much a selling point of strength for our region. And with our joint partnerships with the groups I just mentioned, we're able to deliver on that.

Tom Hall: And Calvin Ball, you mentioned the great workforce in Howard County, you've got this wonderful reputation for safety and livability. You've got great schools and Howard County residents have some of the highest incomes in the country. But, of course, the county's cost of living rather has also risen over time. Do you worry about pricing out lower paid workers, particularly in terms of housing? I mean, what can the government do the County government do, to make a place for everyone?

Calvin Ball: Well, it's really important for me to have a place, not only for people to live, work, grow, and thrive, but to build on to the future to make it so that, that next generation of entrepreneurs, of workers, of people who will be the next Google And Amazon are able to be here. And so we launched our housing opportunities master plan, and that has certain principles like increasing the amount of housing available at all price and rental points. Encouraging greater diversity and socioeconomic integration by increasing affordable housing opportunities throughout Howard County and ensuring that Howard meets the unique housing moment for older adults, our people with disabilities and all diverse populations.

We're also, right now, working through our general plan, which we have called HoCo by Design. And that establishes the vision that our County will have an equitable and environmentally and fiscally sustainable future that helps address the needs of all of our residents, including our most vulnerable and underrepresented populations. And something that has recently come onto the pipeline is, we have a new cultural center, which is an exciting project that's been in development for more than a decade. And will finally be realized, building upon that Jim Rouse vision. And it's going to serve as our new hub for arts and culture and have a home for the iconic Toby's Dinner Theater and have arts programming and affordable housing units. And this will move forward our Live Where You Work program, which was a public and private partnership to have rental subsidies for those who live and work near downtown Columbia and so many other great opportunities to have a full spectrum of affordable housing for today and tomorrow.

Tom Hall: Yeah. And Aaron Tomarchio, you have been a switch hitter throughout your career. You've had leadership positions in both the government sector and the private sector. So from your perspective at Tradepoint Atlantic, what do you think state and local government can do in terms of investments, in things like transportation and workforce development, to foster economic growth for that area and for the region?

Aaron Tomarchio: Well, thank you very much. I think there are a very key investments that can be made of by both state, local and even the federal government. Especially as the federal government looks to introduce an infrastructure package. And that leads me to investments in infrastructure, whether that's highways and bridges, to be able to get people to and from places of employment water, and sewer infrastructure investments to modernize water and sewer systems, to make sure that the supply of that is reliable. Investments in telecommunications infrastructure, as well as electricity and gas. So, those are all core components that are needed to be able to involve good development and specifically development that will grow the type of jobs that we're talking about. Additionally, transportation access is absolutely critical for a successful workforce investment and workforce participation.

Being able to meet the needs from a diverse economy and a diverse community. Not everybody has a car, not everybody maybe is within a walking distance to a light rail or a Metro station. Or sometimes the bus service may need to be improved where, you don't want to have to commute an hour and a half to your job site. You want to be able to get that commute down within that sweet 30 minute timeline.

And how do we do that? And I think that's through diverse investments in transportation and making sure we connect the communities that are needing jobs, with the job centers. And connecting them more directly than maybe they're currently are today. And I think that that's something local governments, in partnership with the state and maybe even also the federal government, can look at doing. Because transportation is absolutely essential for workforce development

Tom Hall: And Mr. County Executive, of course, this past year has been amazing and unprecedented in so many ways. Let's talk about the pandemic. How do you think the Coronavirus crisis has changed your approach to governing? What kinds of programs, for example, have you been able to put in place to help businesses in Howard County get through the myriad of challenges of COVID-19?

Calvin Ball: Well, Howard County government adapted quickly. Shifting about a third of our workforce online, transferring a lot of our in-person services to virtual or making them accessible online and having a online onboarding system for a lot of our new employees. And in fact, we had a lot of belt-tightening measures that actually we implemented, including a hiring freeze, reduction in spending and contractual supplies and services, and, management of our federal CARES Act funding. And so we were able to manage a lot of those fiscal challenges. And then having that CARES Act funding, thanks to our congressional delegation, moving forward, our response and shoring that support, as you indicated, to local businesses. We had $13.5 million in grants and also from the state's rainy day, which helped our businesses. And then we actually had an additional 2 million of our own County funds for our businesses since our CARES Act funding was exhausted.

We had innovative platforms like our HoCo Food Go, which helped people who were food insecure. HoCo Farms Connect, which helped a lot of our farms because, here in Howard County, we have about 300 farms still. We had weekly calls with business owners and not only listened to what they needed and how they were struggling, but we work together to create solutions. And then having some of those solutions actually get implemented like a more efficient permitting process for our restaurants who needed to stand up outdoor seating immediately.

In 2020, nearly $16.5 million in County funds were spent on projects with certified local business enterprises. And that's an increase over previous years because we understand that an investment in our businesses in the state and the region, is an investment in our future.

Tom Hall: And Aaron Tomarchio, how about you and Tradepoint Atlantic. How has the pandemic effected your work? Can you identify, specific operational changes that you've put in place since the start of the COVID crisis?

Aaron Tomarchio: Well, I would say that being in the logistics business, we are in the front lines of what was going on with the COVID pandemic. Part of the front lines in that, it was important for our tenants to protect the supply chain that was very much needed to feed the economy, to make sure that you had supplies on the shelves of our stores when people were needing supplies. But I would say that really the core kind of impact that we had was, the stability for government to be able to continue to operate. Our tenants are very much relying on the delivery of our buildings and the infrastructure that's being built around us today. And I have to give a lot of solutes to the state of Maryland and to Baltimore County for their ability to provide stability and reliability of government during this process, especially with Baltimore County and keeping their services up and running for our tenants.

And as well as the permitting and development review that occurred here in Baltimore County to keep a lot of the projects that were in queue, moving forward. Because the logistics sector really took a hit with the pandemic. A lot of stress on the supply chain and the supply network. And I think what we're seeing now are companies making additional investments in their supply chain to shore up where they solved weaknesses and to make additional investments. So, should this ever happen again, that they're better prepared to be able to address the needs of their customers. So that's where we've been able to see it. And again, I think that the region has really worked together to make sure that the pandemic didn't grind us to a halt. That the people who were needing to get to the front lines to do their jobs were able to do that. And I think that that's been a real strength for the Baltimore region and for the state of Maryland, getting through the pandemic.

Tom Hall: Yeah, Mr. County Executive, Aaron mentioned the help that Tradepoint received from Baltimore County and County Executive Olszewski there, and the role that government plays or has played throughout this pandemic. Perhaps one of the things that people have rekindled is a confidence in the capacity for government to help when crises arise. Folks are very optimistic now about a return to normal, as the vaccine rollout continues. But I wonder, maybe normal is going to mean something different in a post pandemic world. So much has changed about how we live. Are there changes that the pandemic has brought that you want to see carry on into the future?

Calvin Ball: Well, I think the pandemic has created some issues, but frankly it's revealed a lot more. A lot of the issues and challenges that we have now, we already had. Just starting with the health point, comorbidities, people always had heart disease and diabetes and things like that. There were entrepreneurs who were trying to figure out how to make some of the finances work. There were businesses that were trying to figure out, as you very astutely noted, how government can be a supportive partner without having too many restrictions that actually hurt business. And so we recently released our HoCo Rise Collaborative Report, which was a compilation of a lot of work from numerous leaders and many business and other sectors. And we were able to focus on pandemic recovery and the lasting changes and looking at people in Howard County, working remotely.

About 53% of our jobs are teleworking ready. And so maybe we can continue to do some of that and shifting to online and digital work that's going to stick around and make things more convenient and actually help when it comes to transportation, housing. And then looking at the impact on commercial real estate. I think in some sectors, people will say, "Well, there might be less of a need for commercial real estate because people will be working more remotely." And some sectors there'll be more of a need because of the physical distancing standards.

Making sure that there is digital equity, so that we're looking at things like rural broadband and expanding access to digital resources that are vital to our recovery. And then continuing to focus on health and public health equity, not just physical, but also the mental public health. And looking at those disparities that I alluded to and thinking about the government operations that we need, whether it's digital signature processes, or just making sure that we streamline information that people can get online.

So I think there are a lot of things that are here to stay. And the pandemic, while it took us back in several ways, it actually has accelerated our technological and philosophical capabilities to do more. More efficiently and expand opportunity for more people.

Tom Hall: Yeah and Aaron Tomarchio, I think the County Executive makes a really interesting point there about what it's accelerated in terms of innovation, as well as what it has revealed. Many of the problems, talk about preexisting conditions, they were preexisting disparities, preexisting challenges, way before COVID. And COVID exacerbated some of those and really brought them to the forefront.

So let me ask you the same question I've just asked the County Executive. You mentioned logistics, for example, and the problems with the supply chain that have come to light during COVID-19. But are there any other things that you can think of, changes because of the pandemic, that you think will now become part of the normal modus operandi moving forward?

Aaron Tomarchio: I think, two things from where we stand is, definitely the supply chain. How it operates is going to shift a little bit. I think how we as consumers receive our goods each and every day, and how we interact with the market place, with how we go get our food, how we get our clothes, and any other goods that we need. We're going to be consuming them differently. And I think you're going to see more and more companies look at ways that they can get closer and have more direct connection with their customer. And that can take the form of investments in facilities like we're seeing here at Tradepoint Atlantic, gets businesses closer to the population centers that are consuming their goods. So I think you're going to see that.

That was a trend that was already kind of building up. But I think the COVID pandemic really accelerated, and I think really cemented, the virtual, web-based direct-to-customer interactions that you're going to see now in retail and other types of consumer goods. So that will stay. And I think we'll continue to develop out as we move forward, even post pandemic.

And the other piece I'll have to say is, people now are realizing where their goods are coming from. I think they had a little peak into the supply chain when you're going and wanting to order something for your home. And apparently home improvement consumption really went up during the pandemic. And you recognize that, well, what you used to be able to get in a week, now it takes three or four weeks. If you have a better appreciation of how a product gets from point A to point C and the people who are making that happen. And many of those people are frontline workers. The folks that bring in the frontline and the distribution warehouses and the logistics at the port and the truck drivers and all the people who really helped make our economy turn, they have an important role to play. And I think the pandemic revealed that, and hopefully people's appreciation for those types of jobs and the importance that those jobs have in our economy will be front of mind.

Tom Hall: Yeah. That's a really interesting point. All of us, I think, have had a great revelatory experience about how goods get from point A to point B and then into our living rooms and kitchens. And it'll be interesting to see if it has a lasting effect on how we behave as consumers, knowing what we now know that many of us never even bothered to think about before.

So Calvin Ball, we've been talking about Howard County and trade point, which is down in Baltimore County. Let's turn our focus, for the moment, to the city of Baltimore. What are some of the opportunities that you see for Baltimore city? And where does Baltimore fit into the larger regional picture, in terms of its relationship to Howard County and the Baltimore Metro region, in general?

Calvin Ball: Well, my parents grew up in Baltimore city. I grew up in Baltimore County and now I'm here in Howard County. And I think that progression, just in a microcosm of my family, just shows how we are all interdependent. And I strongly believe that a strong Baltimore is good for Howard County and a strong Howard County is good for Baltimore. And given our interdependence, things like transportation represent a prime opportunity to serve as a resource to connect numerous residents who work across the region.

Nearly 60% of Howard County residents commute in and out of the County each and every day. And so we need both a well-run and adequately funded transit system, if we want to improve the quality of life and opportunities for our residents, visitors, and businesses. So Howard County is actually the linchpin between Maryland's two major regions of the Baltimore-DC corridor, bordering six jurisdictions, and positioned squarely in the center of any effective regional transportation plan. Ultimately, equitable and efficient transportation is not just important to our residents, but to our entire state's economy, mobility and future.

Tom Hall: And we've talked so many times here on the Chesapeake Connect podcast about the importance of transportation and Aaron Tomarchio, you mentioned it early on in this discussion. Talk about some of the trends around economic and workforce development that perhaps you are optimistic about when it comes to Baltimore city.

Aaron Tomarchio: I'm very encouraged with Baltimore city and as the County Executive put it very well, the regional collaboration that occurs each and every day with the major players in government and industry to really, work together as a region to build the best workforce. Educate our students from K through 12, all the way clear up through the higher degree learning and be able to give them a stable environment in which to work, live and play.

And I think Maryland and the greater Baltimore region is a very stable region with a lot of growth and opportunity behind it. And a lot of diversity. You talked to the County Executive Ball in the high-tech job corridor that's being established and growing in Howard County and the logistics sector here in Eastern Baltimore County, all working together, to really give a diverse economy for the region. And I think when you have a diverse economy, you are able to provide a diversity of jobs and opportunity for the people here. So I'm very optimistic about this region, have been for quite a long time.

Tom Hall: Oh, that's good to hear. And County Executive Ball, as I mentioned earlier, you attended the last Chesapeake Connect trip to Nashville. What did that experience teach you about our region? Are there things you think we can learn from Nashville, I wonder, in terms of stuff like tourism and the arts. You mentioned the arts a little earlier in this conversation, even areas like healthcare, what'd you take away from that experience going to Nashville?

Calvin Ball: Well, the arts and tourism were very important to Nashville and that's something that did remind me of Howard County. We have an incredible downtown Columbia district that's being revitalized and it's all centralized around Merriweather Post Pavilion, one of the top music venues in the nation. Our community has a deep appreciation for the arts and culture and projects like the new cultural center, which I referenced earlier, which will house Toby's, will exemplify that these are priorities for our residents and Ellicott City. It's a place where people come and there's so much tourism there and focused on the culture and the history and the artistic capabilities of even just the buildings. And we see these things as vital to our quality of life. And it's the same thing for our neighbors in Baltimore, where we see events like Artscape and home to MICA and so many incredible museums. Arts and culture, what gives a community a personality, an animating place that makes things exciting and places like Nashville have a great reputation.

And I think it's in part because we've learned through their history, what makes their city unique. And it's a great example for Howard County and our region to follow. And as we continue to work toward getting out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted so many facets of our daily lives, that hit our arts and creative community especially hard, being able to allocate a hundred thousand dollars to artists relief and to support individual artists and non-profits arts organizations that have been adversely impacted by this pandemic was critical to us starting to get back on our feet. And then providing nearly $650,000 in CARES Act funding to our live venues, such as Merriweather, Toby's and other local theaters. I think not only kept them to be able to survive this challenging time, but then get on the other side of getting vaccines and reopening and actually thrive.

Tom Hall: And many folks talk about how helpful it's been and how animating it's been to take these trips. And Aaron Tomarchio, let's give you the last word here. As a business leader, why do you think programs like Chesapeake Connect are important for our region? What is to be learned, from your point of view?

Aaron Tomarchio: I think programs like Chesapeake Connect can really help us understand best practices of other regions, learning how business and government can interact and form partnerships to really grow their economies and the regions. And when you're able to go to Nashville or Austin, there's not one region has all the answers, and we don't have all the answers here in the Baltimore region. So it's great to be able to go to other parts of the country and learn best practices and determine what could potentially be brought back and put into practice here in Baltimore. And I think it's a great education tool. It's a great motivating tool to encourage our decision makers and leaders and policymakers to kind of think outside the box from time to time. And do what we can do together to collectively grow and support the region. And I think programs like Chesapeake Connect and allow us to do just that.

Tom Hall: Aaron Tomarchio is the Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic. Aaron Tomarchio, thanks so much for joining us here on The Chesapeake Connect Podcast. Appreciate it.

Aaron Tomarchio: Great. Thank you.

Tom Hall: And Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. County Executive, thank you as well. Appreciate your time.

Calvin Ball: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

Tom Hall: And a word about the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. They are the sponsors of the Chesapeake Connect podcast. They collaborate with our regions elected executives to identify mutual interests and develop collaborative strategies, plans, and programs that improve our quality of life and economic vitality.

BMCs member jurisdictions include Baltimore city, as well as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Hartford, Howard, and Queen Anne's counties. And for more information, come on over to BaltoMetro.org.

The Chesapeake Connect Podcast is produced by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council with assistance from WYPR. Please subscribe to the podcast on whatever podcasting app you use and give us a rating if you're so inclined, that will help other listeners find out about the pod. Our producer is Mark Gunnery. On our next episode of the Chesapeake Connect Podcast. We're talking about supporting communities in need throughout the region with Franklin Baker. He's the president and CEO of the United Way of Central Maryland and Queen Anne's County Commissioner, Jim Moran. Until then, I'm Tom Hall. Thanks for connecting.

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