Budgetary challenges due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will once again affect the Columbia Association’s services this summer.
Last month, the association’s board approved its fiscal 2022 budget, which included keeping eight of its 23 pools closed and the permanent closure of wellness center Haven on the Lake.
The $63.6 million budget is 22% less than the original 2021 fiscal budget, which was made before the pandemic. Most of the revenue shortfall stems from a decrease in sports and fitness memberships and community services due to the pandemic.
However, the budget situation this year is less dire than last summer — when the association chose to not open any of its pools or operate its camps — because there is an expected increase in services due to decreasing rates of COVID-19 transmission in the state and more vaccines being administered every day. That’s why the association will be opening up 15 of its pools this spring, operating some summer camps and reinstating before- and after-school programs in the fall.
“It is safe to say we have all had to change our expectations of ‘normal,’ ” CA President Milton Matthews said in a news release. “While some shifts may be temporary, it is inevitable that some changes will be with CA for years to come. As an organization, we embrace all changes that help us focus on our service to the Columbia community and our role, along with our community partners, to enhance the quality of life here.”
Haven on the Lake, a wellness center with yoga, Pilates and aquatics classes that opened in 2014, will permanently close April 30.
According to CA spokesperson Dannika Rynes, keeping the location on the Columbia Lakefront would lose the association more than $430,000 a year.
“We are certainly saddened to have to let this wonderful amenity go, but the cost of operating Haven on the Lake and the outlook for its future — paired with the effect of the pandemic on the overall budget — has become too much to sustain,” Susan Krabbe, the association’s chief financial officer, said in the release.
Haven on the Lake, in the Whole Foods building on the lakefront, has 34 employees, although Rynes said many of them are not full-time employees and some work for other CA properties. She said the association hopes to transition as many team members to other facilities as possible.
The closure of a business on the Columbia Lakefront isn’t new. One of the pandemic’s restaurant losses was Clyde’s — a staple in the community since it opened in 1975 — which closed over the summer.
The Columbia Association, which is both a homeowners association that serves more than 100,000 residents and a membership organization with almost 60,000 members, still has the lease for the Haven on the Lake building with the Howard Hughes Corporation and is searching for a new tenant, Rynes said.
The main reasons the association closed its pools last summer were safety concerns and financial issues. The pools are not financially independent, as they rely on other streams of income at the Columbia Association to fill the gaps. Without the income from after-school programs, fitness clubs and indoor tennis facilities, Matthews said last spring that funding pools wasn’t possible.
This year, however, 65% of the CA’s pools, which served more than 80% of poolgoers in 2019, will be opening, although capacity limits and other COVID-related rules will be in place, Rynes said.
“The decision to close the outdoor pools last year was extremely difficult,” said Dan Burns, the association’s sports and fitness director. “CA looks forward to bringing back this summer tradition for this community, but it’s important to understand how different this experience will be compared to years past. Even taking increased vaccinations and declining case numbers into consideration, restrictions still will be necessary to keep everyone safe.”
The CA pools that will remain closed this year are: Bryant Woods, Clary’s Forest, Dasher Green, Faulkner Ridge, Jeffers Hill, Locust Park, MacGill’s Common and Talbott Springs.
The pools that will reopen are: Clemens Crossing, Dickinson, Dorsey Hall, Hawthorn, Hobbit’s Glen, Hopewell Mini WaterPark, Huntington, Kendall Ridge, Longfellow, Phelps Luck, River Hill, Running Brook, Stevens Forest, Swansfield Mini Water Park and Thunder Hill.
“The pools operate at a loss every year,” Rynes said. “Looking at that this year, staff ... went through knowing there would be constraints on the budget and made the decision to serve the most amount of people as possible. ... The other important thing to understand is that this isn’t a permanent discussion. This is just for this summer.”
Howard County Times: Top stories Newsletter
Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.
The Columbia Association will also resume 20 of its 23 before- and after-school programs, assuming the Howard County Public School System has its students back in classrooms full time this fall — something Superintendent Michael Martirano said last week was his “full expectation.” The school programs are profitable for the association and help fund other services like the pools.
Rynes also said the CA “intends to have a handful of camps open” this summer, and more information about them will be sent to families soon. In 2019, about 800 kids participated in the Columbia Association summer camps.
The new budget does not increase the annual charge rate — which is $0.68 per $100 of assessed valuation — for the association’s members. The annual fees make up about two-thirds of the CA’s 2022 fiscal budget. In a normal year, they amount for 55% of the association’s revenue.
“CA understands our financial hardships are shared by the entire Columbia community,” Krabbe said. “While it makes up almost two-thirds of CA’s projected income for [fiscal] 2022, we knew raising the annual charge was not the solution.”
Last February, before the coronavirus pandemic causing shutdowns, the CA’s budget was nearly $80 million. After re-evaluating its financial situation in the spring, the association decided to shut down all 23 pools and cancel its 17 summer camps. The changes cut the budget down to $56 million last year, due to decreases in sports and fitness memberships and fees with most of the services closed amid the pandemic.