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New website hopes to 'inspire' Columbians

Twice a month, the Columbia Association board meets to discuss policy issues surrounding the $60 million organization, which manages many of Columbia's popular amenities.

And while charged with an important duty, you wouldn't know it judging by attendance at most meetings.

"So many times we host meetings for the general public and you look around and wonder who forgot to send out the wedding invitations," said Celeste Olinger, director of communications for CA.

"It's a little disheartening because you want the public involved in coming up with important ideas and solutions in the community."

And although Olinger might be disheartened, she's not discouraged — thanks to CA's new community interaction tool InspireColumbia.com.

The new website, hosted by the community engagement technology company MindMixer, was officially launched on April 5 and is aimed at fostering interest from the large majority of uninvolved Columbia residents.

"We all lead busy lives, so often it's not possible for a lot of people to attend our public meetings," said Olinger, who said she planned on bringing MindMixer to Columbia when she took the job in October 2012.

"Often we don't hear from a group or audience that lives and works and plays in our community. This is another solution that would allow community engagement for those who do not have the time to attend meetings."

Olinger likened the website, which costs CA $2,000 annually, to a virtual coffee shop, where community members can post ideas, comment on and support other members ideas and share commentary across multiple social media platforms.

The website is free for members to sign up and identifies people by their first name and first initial of their last name. Members of the CA communications team, spearheaded by Communications Specialist Aria Connor, post six topics to the website's homepage. Connor, who was the point person for developing the site, said the topics will rotate monthly.

Currently, the two main topics are "What are your ideas to revitalize the village centers in Columbia?" and "What are your top three preferred ways of receiving communications from Columbia Association?"

Connor said CA monitors the site regularly for comments, as well as inappropriate language, and gives feedback on ideas.

Connor said CA will not review ideas before they are posted, but will monitor the site regularly both to remove obscene posts and give feedback on ideas.

"It's the way we are trying to engage them and let them know we are listening to what they are saying," Connor said. "We want to respond back."

The department plans to prepare weekly and monthly reports to members of senior staff summarizing the ideas proposed on the site, which will then be relayed to members of the CA board, according to Olinger.

'Different voices'

While InspireColumbia.com is a place for all to share community ideas, it favors the younger, more technologically inclined residents, who may be the CA community's most underrepresented.

"It's for tapping those untapped resources that we know nothing about," Olinger said. "All of a sudden you find a gold mine in your community. To me it makes sense to bridge the gap and make sure those solutions are coming from the community."

CA board member Michael Cornell said the more ways CA has to connect with its residents, the better.

"It's a response to an ongoing conversation we've been having around the question, 'How do we engage the community?' " said Cornell, who has served on the board six years.

"There are a lot of people in the community that would like to be more involved and provide more input."

Even though Cornell categorized the interactive website as "a great step forward," he acknowledged it is only part of the answer.

"One thing I've learned over the years, you can never over-communicate," Cornell said. "No matter what we are doing, it's probably never enough."

And while community involvement on the website has been slow — only three people have commented more than twice — Olinger believes it will catch on.

"It's going to take our social media to the next level," Olinger said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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    Celeste Olinger, Director of Communications for CA, left, and employee Aria White Connor, 26, in the Columbia Association offices at Lakefront as they discuss the new website InspireColumbia, which aims to get residents involved in the process of Columbia's future plans.

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