The Columbia Association announced Friday afternoon that it will not renew President Phil Nelson's contract when it expires April 30.
“After a lot of discussion, (the CA Board of Directors) decided we wanted to go in a different direction,” Board Chair Andy Stack said. “Phil has done good things and has a lot of accomplishments. He has done well to push the board toward a focus on the future.”
Nelson, 64, left his position as city manager of the City of Troy, Mich., in May 2009 to become president of CA on a two-year contract. In 2011, he was granted an extension through May 2014.
A call to Nelson's cellphone Friday was not returned.
Stack said the decision was influenced by the board's desire to become more focused on “community involvement.”
“We need to sell Columbia, and I think there is a definite sense on the board that that is missing,” Stack said. “You have to focus on the community and bring them on board and get them excited again about the Rouse vision for Columbia. That’s going to require a lot of community focus, involvement, partnering and those kinds of thing.”
When the board was putting together Nelson's list of goals for the 2014 fiscal year in the summer, some board members expressed concern that Nelson was not visible enough in the community.
Stack said he thinks that perception “factored into some of the board members' decisions.” Suzanne Waller, longtime board member from Town Center, agreed.
“It’s about expanding and having CA move to the next level,” Waller said. “He was here for five years, but we thought it was time to move on and bring somebody who is interactive in the community more.”
The CA Board of Directors has retained the executive search firm DHR Inc. to find a replacement for Nelson. Stack said the board hopes to choose a replacement by April 30. If no replacement is found, Stack said an interim president will be appointed from existing senior staff.
During his tenure at CA, Nelson leveraged his experience as a city manager to help streamline the organization’s management and maintain its open space. Included in that was an expansive lake dredging effort, which had long been neglected by CA. Nelson also helped shepherd CA out of heavy long-term debt. In 2009, when Nelson took over, approximately 18 cents of every revenue dollar earned by CA was used to pay debt service. That number is projected to be reduced to 4 cents in fiscal year 2016.
Nelson also oversaw the $6 million reconstruction of Hobbit’s Glen Golf Club clubhouse, the development of a $2.7 million downtown wellness retreat and the adoption of the Inner Arbor Plan, which calls for a downtown arts village in Symphony Woods.
Waller, who was on the board when Nelson was hired, said, “he was the right man” for the job when hired five years ago, and praised the team approach Nelson brought to the organization.
“There was a greater collaboration that existed as a result of his work,” Waller said.
Tom O'Connor, board member from Dorsey's Search, was the chair of the search committee that hired Nelson. O'Connor said, at the time, the board was looking for someone who was a 180-degree turn from former CA President Maggie Brown, who was known for her outgoing and social demeanor.
“He matched what we were looking for at the time,” he said. “We were looking for someone to be more of a city manager than Maggie Brown. Maybe we asked for a little too much.”
O'Connor said he recalls the process as being “very long and dragged out,” and included public meetings and a 20-person search committee. O'Connor said this time around CA hopes it will be expedited because of CA's self-imposed April 30 deadline, which is the start of the new fiscal year.
CA is a 501(c)4 nonprofit with an operating budget in excess of $60 million. CA owns and operates more than 3,500 acres of open space and a series of neighborhood amenities that includes lakes, parks, tot lots, basketball and tennis courts and more than 93.5 miles of walking, jogging and biking pathways.
CA also operates three fitness clubs, an ice rink, a skate park, two golf clubs, three tennis clubs, an indoor swim center and 23 outdoor pools.