This week in Columbia's history: Wilde Lake turned from building the new to fixing the old

In 1996, Columbia's first village, Wilde Lake, began a series of parallel revitalization efforts on the eve of its 30th birthday. The initiatives, which included community meetings and coordination of high-level decision makers, marked one of Columbia's earliest forays into rebuilding aging communities, instead of building new ones.

A 1996 edition of the Columbia Flier called for village residents to attend a meeting titled "Real Estate Values in Wilde Lake" on April 11. According to the Washington Post, around 35 residents attended the meeting, which invited community perspectives while coaching homeowners on how to make their houses more attractive to buyers.

Though the meeting was focused on real estate, other underlying tensions surfaced. The Washington Post reported that one unnamed man at the meeting expressed discomfort with the high concentration of subsidized housing in the village, while an unnamed woman said she had heard real estate agents call Wilde Lake's school a "ghetto high school."

That committee, spearheaded by the Wilde Lake village board, also held meetings about schools, crime and the environment.

Around the same time, former Howard County Councilwoman Mary Lorsung, whose district included Wilde Lake, said she organized a committee to revitalize the neighborhood by putting stakeholders and decision-makers in the same room.

"These communities are not too different from people," Lorsung said she told people as she was putting the committee together. "As we get older, there are going to be parts that don't work quite as well. We tend not to deal with these things … until things are really wrong."

The key, said Lorsung, was to avoid a crisis.

"I am not good at crisis management," Lorsung said she told people at the time. "So you don't want to deal with me if we hit the crisis mode."

Lorsung said the Wilde Lake Revitalization Committee met four times a year, and included representatives from major Columbia developer Howard Research and Development; the Columbia Association; the county school system; utilities such as Comcast; and various Howard County government department heads.

The short meetings, Lorsung said, allowed village representatives to present problems that residents felt needed fixing. The problems were often small, specific issues, Lorsung said, which the committee was able to address because they began the revitalization process early and "didn't have large crises looming."

The committee was particularly important for addressing problems with overlapping responsible parties. For example, Lorsung said, an issue on one path could fall under the purview of a school, a townhouse association, the Columbia Association, a utility company running cables across it and Howard County Recreation and Parks. Without a way to coordinate a response, Lorsung said, each organization would pass the responsibility on to the next, and "no one ever took care of it."

Although the problems were small, Lorsung said the initiative was successful in two major ways.

First, they succeeded in avoiding crises and solving problems early.

Second, said Lorsung, the project said to people: "We care about what you are experiencing."

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