North Laurel Community Center opens

The celebratory opening this month of the North Laurel Community Center shows again that government often moves slowly, but it also shows that politicians from both political parties can work toward a common goal.

From idea to reality took more than two decades, and lots of pushing and pulling from civil servants and elected officials. The project, which also includes a park that is not yet ready, spanned the service of four County Council members who have represented the area and four county executives from both parties.

At times it might have seemed like the community center and park would never be built. But Wednesday, workers were busy installing the wooden dance floor in one large room while others set up phones and finished other last-minute details. The park adjoining the 63,000-square-foot center is to open late this summer, according to John Byrd, county recreation and parks director.

"It's going to be a great thing for our community," said Mary Rekus, a nearby resident. "I can't tell you how many times I've dragged my son to testify." Adam, 11, is very excited, she said, because he's enrolled in the first summer camp program at the park. She's been advocating for the center since moving to the area in 1994.

The entire project covers 51 acres next to Laurel Woods Elementary School, though the entrance is off Whiskey Bottom Road. The big, modern-looking $15.9 million community center is similar in size, though not design, to one the county built five years ago in Glenwood in the western part of the county.

It contains a senior center, a gymnasium with an indoor walking track, a weight and fitness room, volleyball and basketball courts, a dance and aerobics room, classrooms and space for community meetings, and offices for county police and health officials. When complete, the $3.8 million park will be equipped with playing fields, picnic tables and playgrounds, plus a skate park.

Obtaining the land was the big obstacle, since just over half consisted of 123 narrow building lots subdivided in the 1890s but never surveyed or built on. The rest of the land was obtained in a swap between the county government and the school board.

"I started out saying I wanted a park for my kids, but I switched to my grandkids," laughed community activist Donna Thewes, a Republican who later ran unsuccessfully for County Council and now serves on the election board. When she and her family moved to the area in 1988, she said, her third child had just been born.

"I was just absolutely astounded we didn't have a lot of parks to go to," Thewes said. Back then, North Laurel residents often took their children across the Prince George's County line to find parks and amenities, and it seemed to many residents that the communities along the U.S. 1 commercial corridor were being neglected.

Del. Shane Pendergrass recalled that a political change before her election as the council member from North Laurel in 1986 helped nurture local ideas like a new park.

"I was among the first generation of County Council members who represented a district" rather than the entire county, she said. "Before that, people representing the county were not from this part of town." As a community activist who came to politics because of her interest in bettering county schools, other needs soon bubbled to the surface.

"We wanted to do something for the community," recalled Pendergrass, a Democrat who served two council terms through 1994.

Del. Guy Guzzone, who came to Howard County in 1990 from Baltimore County, worked to advance the idea as Pendergrass' council special assistant during her second term, and then pushed for the county to buy the lots and assemble the large parcel as a two-term county councilman himself from 1998 to 2006.

In between, Republican Dennis Schrader also toiled to push the idea forward.

"I was committed to get the project off the ground," Schrader said, but there were problems. Some of the old building lot owners had sold to developers and some of them didn't want to let the county have the land. "I had to take heat from the property owners," Schrader recalled. He created a North Laurel Savage Planning Committee to help with the issue.

James Irvin, county public works director, said the first formal request for land acquisition for the park came in fiscal 1996, and the project made it into the capital budget the next fiscal year. The first lot was purchased in fiscal 1999, he said county records show.

Guzzone took over shepherding the park when he joined the council in December 1998.

"Guy picked up the ball and ran with it," Schrader said. With lots finally being purchased, keeping track of everything became more complicated. "There were a huge number of parts to this thing," Guzzone said. By November 2001, a builder agreed to swap 11 lots sought for the park for 12 others elsewhere that he could build on, but a few months later the county had to threaten to use condemnation powers to persuade the final five recalcitrant owners to sell.

Jen Terrasa took over the council seat in December 2006, which was during the fiscal year the construction money was placed in the capital budget. Her job, she said, was managing the various park features, dealing with a few neighbors who worried about the impact on their homes, and making sure there is easy pedestrian and transit access to the facility.

With the recession looming early in her first term, she had to help keep the project on track. "The bigger deal was making sure it got the funding it needed," Terrasa said, although County Executive Ken Ulman was also committed to finishing the project.

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