Former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is known for his work with the University of Maryland, which hired him in 2014 to boost economic development in College Park.
Now, Montgomery County officials are hiring Ulman for a different task — luring the University System of Maryland and its flagship campus at College Park.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations with folks in the county about the desire to drive more higher education investment,” Ulman said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Essentially, you have Montgomery County — an engine of innovation, a strong business community, but lacking a traditional four-year university.”
The Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit public/private partnership tasked with spearheading business retention and growth, signed a contract with Ulman’s consulting firm, Margrave Strategies, on Sept. 19.
The three-month agreement, valued at $22,500, is for Margrave to market Montgomery County to the University of Maryland and the University System of Maryland as a site for future research institutes.
Neither institution responded to additional questions on Tuesday. Mike Lurie, a spokesman for the University System of Maryland, deferred to the University of Maryland. A spokeswoman there said she was working on the request, but did not provide additional information.
Historically, the University of Maryland has long held an interest in Montgomery County, whose border nearly touches College Park, Ulman said. Those conversations culminated in the establishment of The Universities at Shady Grove, a satellite campus for multiple Maryland universities that offers several degree programs.
But over the last few years, county officials have become increasingly interested in broadening the presence of academic research institutions, Ulman said.
Margrave Strategies is known for its work with universities and economic development in the jurisdictions that surround them. In May, the firm hired Bill Cole, former director of the Baltimore Development Corporation, who oversaw efforts to save the Preakness and reimagine Pimlico Race Course as a regional park with year-round programming.
The contract comes amid wider scrutiny of Montgomery County’s economic future and reports of stagnating growth. A 2018 study from Empower Montgomery, a nonprofit that advocates on transportation, education and economic development, made headlines after reporting that the county was home to fewer jobs in 2016 than in 2006.
Expanding higher education has been floated as a tool for economic development over the last few years by legislators and local businesses alike, said Sarah Miller, the vice president of strategy for MCEDC.
The county doesn’t have a dollar estimate for how much an institution might add to the local economy. But arguments for attracting new research programs run the gamut, from cultivating entrepreneurship to developing a talent pipeline for federal labs.
“There’s the job creation argument, there’s entrepreneurship, and there’s the tech talent portion,” Miller said. “And as the lead economic development agency, we’re interested in all of it.”n.
The University of Maryland was Ulman’s first client when he started Margrave Strategies following an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2014. In previous interviews, University of Maryland President Wallace Loh said he hired Ulman — who guided Howard County through the Great Recession — to transform College Park into a hub for startup companies.
Ulman still works for the University of Maryland College Park Foundation as the chief strategy officer for economic development, according to the bio in his contract with Montgomery County. He also serves as president of the Terrapin Development Company, a real estate company co-owned by the University of Maryland and foundation.
Over the past four years, Margrave Strategies has consulted for Salisbury, Bowie State, and Towson universities, according to the contract.
“That’s the kind of experience we need to attract new research institutions,” County Executive Marc Elrich said in an interview on Monday. “I think if we could bring in a university, it would be a big step in rebranding Montgomery County as a great place to start a business.”
The contract with Margrave Strategies sets a “specific focus” on the University of Maryland and the University System of Maryland, tasking the firm with finding new ways to attract affiliated research institutes, incubators, and accelerators. The company also outlines plans to identify resources the university might need and guide the county through interactions with representatives.
Elrich said he envisioned a graduate-level program focused on biotechnology or tech development— fields with an established presence in the county. He’s particularly interested in creating a research center in White Flint, an area of the county he views as ripe for development given its proximity to public transit and availability of commercial space.
Other legislators have endorsed similar concepts, without the specific geographic focus. Council Member Hans Riemer has called for expanding higher education in Montgomery County through new institutions or by adding a specialty research program to The Universities at Shady Grove.
“USG could be the home campus for a program in bio or another field,” Riemer said in a phone interview on Monday. “There’s no reason why there couldn’t be full-time faculty whose only place of teaching and research is there.”
Ulman also emphasized that the company’s focus would be analyzing the feasibility of a specific program or research institute focused on the county’s pre-existing strengths.
“It’s an analysis, it’s conversations with institutions, and I think our hope is that the end of the three-month engagement, there’s a path forward,” he said. Margrave would be “honored” to continue its work with the county, Ulman added, but the process of establishing a research program is a significant endeavor.
As the company embarks on the task, it’s considering similar models, including the expansion of Virginia Tech University into Alexandria, Virginia, near the site where Amazon will establish its new headquarters. The university plans to build incubator space and an expansive campus for master’s and PhD-level students studying tech-related fields — “to provide a workforce for Amazon and other companies,” Ulman said.
The county is still analyzing the potential impacts of expanded higher education on its economic development. As Margrave Strategies cultivates possible partnerships with the University of Maryland and the University System of Maryland, MCEDC plans to research outside universities and research institutions that might be interested in expanding into the county, Miller said.
The Planning Department is in the initial phases of case study research to analyze the effects of higher education expansion in other jurisdictions, which the County Council requested during budget discussions for fiscal year 2020.
“They’re going to be looking at why some were successes, why some failed, and how they were funded,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of different agencies working together on this.”