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Howard executive Ken Ulman running $72M project to connect Maryland

While the economic malaise lingers, another recession threatens and trillions in federal budget cuts loom, Ken Ulman finds hope in a warehouse in Elkridge.

There sit spools of fiber-optic cable destined to link public institutions and build the backbone of a network that will bring high-speed Internet service to office buildings and business parks throughout central Maryland.

Ulman, the 37-year-old Howard County Executive, is running the $72 million project he says will give Maryland the cyber infrastructure to support the high-tech advances.

“That’s what I really envision as something that is going to differentiate Maryland in the jobs of the future and in the innovation and entrepreneurism culture,” Ulman said during a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Record.

The Inter-County Broadband Network effort includes 1,300 miles of fiber-optic cable in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, as well as Baltimore city and Annapolis. The cable will link more than 1,000 grade schools, community colleges, universities, police and fire stations, 911 centers, hospitals and courthouses.

“The idea is, the tentacles, if you will, the veins of this build-out are going so deep into neighborhoods they’re also going by virtually every job center in the region,” Ulman said. “If you think about where every one of those institutions is, we’re going by every office building to get there.”

Watch video from our Newsmakers interview with Ulman

Ulman’s project is part of a larger, $162 million effort. Maryland was awarded $115 million from the federal economic stimulus package last September that it will couple with $47 million in state and county funds to wire the state from the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland. The state is administering the rural portions of the project.

August 2013 deadline

The network faces an August 2013 deadline, but Ulman said he expects the first pieces of the system to come online in the next nine to 12 months.

“It’s going to be real very soon,” he said.

Counties and cities will save $28 million that would have been spent leasing space on other networks, Ulman said. Beyond that, local governments could save by consolidating data centers and pooling information technology resources.

Public safety agencies will be able to share video feeds and information more easily and link 911 centers. And Ulman hopes the creation of a Center for Broadband Innovation and a public sector app store will make Maryland an appealing location for IT companies to test their products and grow.

“Ours aren’t going to be 99 cents, but if somebody wants to create an app for the public sector to track school buses, to provide real-time feeds to the citizens from the police department, whatever it is, come here, model it here, put your company, your application designers here and use our network to model it,” he said.

The public broadband network will also give private Internet service providers the foundation to offer wired and wireless in communities without access to high-speed service.

“We’re going to connect to the Salisburys of the world, and then, by the way, you’re going by Perdue [poultry company], you’re going by this office building, you’re going by this manufacturing facility, you’re getting it deeper into network,” Ulman said. “For my vision for Maryland, this is the network that will help the rural areas be able to attract the jobs for the 21st century.”

Those private jobs are critical to Maryland jurisdictions facing a decline in the federal spending that has for decades brought high-paying government and contractor jobs to the state.

“It’s become common to criticize Maryland for being too reliant on the federal government,” Ulman said. “People around this country are salivating to have the kind of federal assets that we have.”

He said the state needs to do a better job of taking advantage of federal and educational resources, to make it easier for institutions like Johns Hopkins University to commercialize their patents.

Ulman was guarded in his economic forecast for Howard County, despite data that show income tax revenues picking up.

“In a vacuum, I was starting to feel optimistic,” he said. “But the problem is we’re not in a vacuum. We’re so directly connected to the state and the government. When S&P downgraded the federal government [credit rating], it started this chain reaction for local governments, especially those of us who are AAA.”

Analysts’ scrutiny

Following the Standard & Poor’s action, fellow rating house Moody’s Investors Service placed AAA-rated local governments on a negative outlook. And analysts from S&P, Moody’s and Fitch Ratings will visit Howard this month in advance of the county’s bond sale in October.

“Essentially they’ve asked us to prove we’re more credit-worthy than the federal government, who has a printing press,” Ulman said.

He said county officials are analyzing Howard’s workforce to assess the exposure to budget cuts in Washington. The county is home to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, a major recipient of federal aid, and is ringed by major federal institutions, including the Social Security Administration campus in Woodlawn, Food and Drug Administration in White Oak and Fort George G. Meade just over the border in Anne Arundel County.

The analysis has found that of the approximately 150,000 workers in the county, 15,000 work for the federal government, Ulman said.

“We don’t know exactly where they work,” he said. “But, we know that about 8,000 of them work at Fort Meade.”

Another 23,000 are contractors that service Fort Meade, he added.

The Base Realignment and Closure process brought more jobs to Meade, and the establishment of the U.S. Cyber Command there alongside the National Security Agency and Defense Information Systems Agency is expected to bring even more high-tech jobs to the area.

Ulman said some expectations for the BRAC jobs boom “may have been a little bit high,” but he added that he is “very pleased” with the growth at Fort Meade.

He noted that 1,500 of the DISA’s 4,200 employees take a commuter bus that leaves from the Pentagon. In time, Ulman said, those people will migrate to Maryland as their children graduate high school or older workers retire and are replaced with the new people who are not tied to Northern Virginia.

“In my mind, yes, we want that slug of 4,200 jobs that came with DISA, and there are folks still finishing up that transfer process,” Ulman said. “But we want that … fast and steady growth of cyber command. We didn’t necessarily want all those people to show up on our doorstep on Day One.”

Howard has school-crowding issues and traffic headaches even without that sudden influx, and Ulman said many of those issues will linger.

“We have a number of [transportation] projects where we’ve had our local [funding] match sitting there and the state hasn’t had theirs,” he said. “We’ve got a match for a third lane on [U.S.] 29 going north. We’ve got money in matches for Route 32 and 70 that the state just hasn’t been able to come up with their share.”

Ulman, a member of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Maryland Transportation Funding, said he doesn’t expect the General Assembly to address the issue during the 2012 session. The commission has recommended the state raise $800 million more for highways and transit every year.

“I don’t think the political will is there,” he said.

Stronger leadership needed

Ulman, who heads the Maryland Association of Counties and supports a gas tax increase, said the governor and state leaders need to exhibit stronger leadership on the issue.

“I am convinced that if you really lay out a vision and tell people, ‘Here’s what you will pay for and here is exactly how it’ll be spent,’ you might get buy-in,” he said. “But right now, everyone is rightfully cynical that if they pay more, they’ll never actually see it. We need to do a much better job in communicating that to a skeptical public.”

The stakes are high for county and local governments, which have seen their highway aid raided by the governor and state lawmakers looking to balance the state’s books.

“We’ve taken it on the chin,” Ulman said. “We’ve had over $1 billion of highway user revenues cut. We’ve basically been cut, everything that you can cut, pretty much down to the bone with the exception of education funding.”

Widely rumored to be a candidate for higher office, Ulman could be in a position to change that in 2014.

He travels the state as part of the broadband project and as president of the counties association, and his role as treasurer of the National Democratic County Officials group takes him across the country.

During his interview, he mentioned meetings with business leaders and elected officials in every corner of the state, including an IT company in Pocomoke City and commissioners in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties.

“It’s been gratifying to travel around the state and have people interested in me running for higher office,” Ulman said. “As we go through the next few years, we’ll evaluate where we go.”

Ulman’s term expires in 2014. And while term limits will keep him from running for re-election, he has options, although other contenders are already lining up. The Democratic field for governor already appears crowded for 2014, many legislators have voiced interest in the comptroller’s post, there could be a vacancy in the attorney general’s office and there’s always Congress.

“I need to find a job,” Ulman said. “My wife especially, she has told me I need to find a job.”

Kenneth S. Ulman

Age: 37

Hometown: Columbia

Family: wife, Jacqueline; daughters Madeline, 10, and Lily, 5.

Education: B.A. in government and politics from the University of Maryland, 1997; J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, 2001

Work: Ulman was elected to the Howard County Council in 2002 and served one term in District 4 while running his law firm in Columbia. He won the county executive job in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010 by a 26 percentage-point margin.