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‘It is time to reinvest in this community’: Hundreds rally in support of East Columbia 50+ Center renovation

More than 250 people rallied in the parking lot of the East Columbia Branch library Friday afternoon in support of fully funding the renovation of the East Columbia 50+ Center proposed in the fiscal 2022 capital budget.

The rally — organized by People Acting Together Howard County, a community organization that looks to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in the county — featured passionate remarks from older adults who frequent the center. Elected officials such as former County Executive Liz Bobo, Del. Vanessa Atterbeary and council members Opel Jones and Christiana Mercer Rigby attended.

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The Rev. John West of St. John Baptist Church in Columbia served as emcee for the event, asking the crowd, “What do we want?” and people responding, “Build a center!“

”It’s time for us to give back and to acknowledge all of our seniors for all they’ve given us,“ West said.

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Seniors in attendance waived miniature shovels, an acknowledgment that the project is shovel ready for renovations to begin soon, and mini paint palettes in support of the painting classes offered at the center. There were also two performances, a soul line dance and a tai chi demonstration, two more activities available at the center.

At the end of March, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced that the East Columbia 50+ Center would receive $1 million in state funding and possibly $5.5 million in county funding toward renovations, if the County Council approves his proposed fiscal 2022 capital budget.

Last year, Ball had initially included $16.2 million in the fiscal 2021 budget for the design and construction of the expansion of the East Columbia center. At the time it was expected to be complete in fiscal 2021, which ends June 30.

Last year, after deliberations, the County Council cut $23.4 million from Ball’s proposed budget, citing economic concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The East Columbia 50+ Center budget was reduced by $4.5 million as part of those cuts.

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In the final approved fiscal 2021 budget, Ball said that decision led to delays in scheduled projects including the 50+ center.

On Friday, Howard’s six senior centers reopened for the first time since the coronavirus shutdown in March 2020 at 50% capacity and by appointment only.

The Rev. Paige Getty of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, who is co-chair of People Acting Together Howard County, spoke about why funding the center’s renovation is an “equitable and just decision.”

“The East Columbia 50+ Center is a gathering place for members of this community who are often overlooked because of where they live, because of their race, because of limited resources or because they are otherwise vulnerable,” Getty said.

Getty said the East Columbia 50+ Center serves more older adults of color than any other 50+ center in the county.

“It is time to reinvest in this community and to fulfill the promise of a new expanded 50+ center in East Columbia,” she said.

Henrietta Milward, a Columbia resident who had been visiting the center for eight years, questioned why other centers in the county have been renovated but the East Columbia center has not.

“I just think we’re under-served. I want to know why we’re being treated like this?” Milward said during her remarks.

Bobo, who pushed for the center to be built nearly 30 years ago, also spoke.

“It does make me feel very good to see this building here, the library and the senior center here, and I completely agree we need more space for the seniors in this part of the county,“ Bobo said.

The planned expansion would take the center from 3,800 square feet to 29,600 square feet. It will include a commercial kitchen, fitness equipment room and exercise studio, large community meeting space, technology hub and a social day program for at-risk adults in the area, among other features. The building will also have a generator so it can be used by the community during emergencies.

”Equity shouldn’t be a buzzword here in Columbia, but intentional actions are necessary to create equity,“ Atterbeary said.

In a recent master plan for the Office on Aging and Independence, it was noted the neighborhood where the center is located includes a population of individuals in which 86% are age 60 and older. Forty percent of Howard’s total older adult population resides in East Columbia, according to the report.

Jones and Rigby said they would support funding the center during budget deliberations.

“The funding is in the hands of the County Council. All [we’ve] got to do is say yes,“ Jones said.

The county said construction of the center could begin as early as August if the County Council approves the funding in its vote at the end of May. The projected opening is spring 2023.

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