Columbia Association studies cutting more than half of its neighborhood centers

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Leaders of the Columbia Association are examining whether to close or find new uses for more than half of the neighborhood centers in Columbia’s 10 villages.

The private organization runs many of the planned community’s resident programs and services and operates 14 neighborhood centers, originally designed to offer day care co-op programs staffed by neighborhood volunteers, as well as convenience stores, swimming pools, parks and playgrounds.

In a memo to the association’s board members and chief executive officer, Director of Open Space and Facilities Services Dennis Mattey recommended that Locust Park Neighborhood Center in Long Reach be demolished in fiscal 2020. He also recommended shutting down seven other centers, writing “the neighborhood centers present a substantial capital and operating challenge” to the group’s financial resources.

“It is not a question of whether or not the neighborhood centers are used, but rather whether or not the long term capital and operating expenditures add commensurate value to the Columbia community,” he wrote.

The April 5 memo did not discuss cost estimates for maintaining or improving the centers, which have an average age of 45 and range from 586 square feet to 4,900 square feet. While the idea for the centers was once cutting edge, over time the co-op centers have given way to for-profit day care centers, Mattey wrote.

Nine of the centers have day care centers and one has a Montessori school.

The association’s board also is being asked to consider turning Running Brook and Faulkner Ridge neighborhood centers into pool bathhouses, replacing replace Stevens Forest and Jeffers Hill neighborhood centers with “passive parks” and taking to take Talbott Springs, Longfellow and MacGills Common out of service.

Word of the proposed “strategic plan” has upset some in the neighborhoods.

Rebecca Palmquist, board president of the co-op preschool Wilde Lake Children’s Nursery at Faulkner Ridge neighborhood center, said the move is “confusing,” as the center was renovated in 2013.

Palmquist said that if the co-op’s location is closed, she hopes the association would help the school find a new site. The center employs three part-time teachers and has 42 students, according to Palmquist.

“In the memo they mentioned that [the centers] seem to be more shifted towards day care and not what they were originally intended for, but we’re still doing what we were originally intended for, which is a co-op run by parents,” Palmquist said.

Alisa Holbert, who serves on the board of the Oakland Mills Nursery School at Thunder Hill neighborhood center, said she’s concerned by the lack of consultation the association has had with the centers’ tenants thus far.

“These are not dilapidated buildings that are run down that we need to demolish and build something better,” Holbert said. “There’s not a fair picture of what’s going on in these neighborhood centers.”

Association CEO Milton Matthews and Mattey were not available for comment on the proposal, which is scheduled to be discussed at a work session tonight. Spokesman David Greisman released a statement about the April 5 memo.

“As a strategic initiative for the President/CEO for Fiscal Year 2018, the Board of Directors asked staff to review the 14 neighborhood center buildings owned by Columbia Association, using a number of criteria, including the cost and benefits of maintaining them,” the statement read. “The study and its recommendations are now coming before the CA Board for the first time. Thursday’s work session is a starting point. There will not be any action taken at the work session.”

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