Future of Columbia lakefront bell tower still up in the air

Heading to a restaurant at Lake Kittamaqundi on a recent weekday, David Brocklebank walked near the same lakefront he'd known since his youth. It's a place the longtime Columbia resident has fond memories of skateboarding as a teenager.

One familiar feature wasn't there, however, hasn't been there for about a year-and-a-half, and will not be there again in the near future: the lake's signature bell and flag tower.

"It's kind of a void," said Brocklebank, 39. "I always look forward to it. It kind of brings the tone of the lakefront. It's a focal point."

For more than 40 years, the tower stood sentry at the end of a dock at Lake Kittamaqundi. But its future now is, well, up in the air.

The tower was taken down around the spring of 2010 because the wooden structure was deteriorating after decades of being exposed to the elements.

Whether the tower comes back — and if so, where it goes — will be decided as part of the lakefront master plan, according to Chick Rhodehamel, Columbia Association's director of community development and sustainability.

There is no set timetable for the master plan and it is likely to be years away, he said, because planning the future of Columbia's lakefront should take into consideration what the coming redevelopment of other sections of downtown look like.

"We don't tell people they'll never see it again. We also don't tell people it's going to be back in the exact same spot," Rhodehamel said.

The tower "is an icon of downtown, so I have no doubt that discussion of it, or contemplation of it, will be part of the master plan. But that's not just something around the corner," he said.

A year ago, CA officials estimated the cost of replacing the bell tower at $200,000 to $300,000.

The tower dates back to 1967. Its carillon bells, which used to toll every 15 minutes and could also be programmed, were a gift from what was then The Rouse Company for Columbia's 10th anniversary, according to Barbara Kellner, executive director of the Columbia Archives.

Columbia does not have many landmarks, she said. Among the most recognizable are the lakefront area and two features there: the "People Tree" statue and, when it was still standing, the bell tower.

"Landmarks are really important," Kellner said. "The thing that is most central to people's idea of Columbia, and the thing pictured in photographs is the lakefront and those structures.

"The lakefront is not that visible from all places because of the topography. This tower sticking up gave you a destination that you could see from farther away."

The lakefront master plan process, when it does begin, will include feedback from Columbia residents.

"I would hope that the plan for the lakefront is sooner than later," Kellner said, "so that the memory of the bells doesn't fade from people's minds."

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