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Columbia Association hopes town hall will expand outreach

The Columbia Association has been an integral part of Columbia since it was created nearly 50 years ago.

Using a $65 million budget, some of which is drawn through a tax-like fee collected from property owners, the nonprofit manages 3,500 acres of open space, 93.5 miles of pathways and numerous amenities for the community's 100,000 residents.

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But you would be hard-pressed to determine CA's true value upon attending a bi-monthly meeting of the organization's elected governing body: the CA Board of Directors. Held inside a modest-sized conference room at CA's downtown headquarters, attendance is scarce – it often dwindles as meetings draw late into the evening – and is usually populated by the same small group of people.

The lack of attendance is not a new issue, and it's one CA's leaders are addressing through an Oct. 18 event called "Columbia Speaks, CA Listens," which will be held between 9:30 a.m. and noon at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, 10431 Twin Rivers Road.

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The open forum, town-hall style meeting is a first for CA. Officials say it has been designed to gather unsolicited viewpoints from a cross-section of residents.

"This is a huge opportunity for stakeholders who might have views CA isn't aware of. This is their time to tell us what those are," said Nancy McCord, a CA Board member and chair of the committee that spearheaded planning for the event.

She added: "We want to hear from everybody, not just the select few that come on a regular basis. ... We want a diverse view."

To assist in the meeting, CA has retained Justice and Sustainability Associates, a Washington-based company focusing on civic engagement and conflict resolution.

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Hala Harik Hayes, a senior associate with JSA, said attendees will be divided up into small groups where they will discuss three topics: CA's programs and services, CA's community engagement and CA's governance structure. The topics were chosen based on responses to a survey given to pre-registrants. There will also be a designated time for attendees to discuss whatever topic they wish.

"We want small-group conversations where the participants are really driving the conversation," Hayes said.

Following the small discussions, which will be facilitated by a professional mediator and recorded by a secretary, there will be a large-group discussion where insights will be shared.

Hayes said JSA designed the event to be attractive to residents by providing day care services, serving breakfast and hosting it on a Saturday – other CA meetings are held during weeknights.

"We try to identify those kinds of barriers early on, and do what we can to overcome them," she said.

And while, in many ways, the Columbia Association is a unique entity, it is not unique in this challenge of audience engagement.

"It's something we see around the country," Hayes said.

CA President and CEO Milton Matthews agrees that CA is not alone.

"I've been in a lot of communities, and you always wonder why you don't get as many people out and you see the same faces," said Matthews, whose previous jobs include city manager in Missouri and CEO of the Reston Association, a group similar to CA that serves the planned community of Reston, Va.

He added: "I like to take the optimistic approach: If there is an issue that is really pressing them, they are going to come out, we've seen that in the past. ... If they are comfortable, I think they may not come out."

Matthews said he is looking forward to the meeting, and added that he thinks the format changes will make a big difference in the type of stakeholder feedback.

"This is not so much about them responding to a matter on an agenda. We want to sit down and let the participants have a conversation about topics in the community," he said.

Matthews, who was hired in June, said community engagement is one of his major priorities. Last month, CA hired Norma Heim to become the director of communications and marketing, a new position that will oversee and combine the communications and marketing departments.

Matthews said one of Heim's first tasks will be to do an assessment of CA's community outreach efforts, which includes a print publication called "CA Monthly," and Inspire Columbia, an online public forum launched last year.

He said the purpose will be to determine "whether we are doing something because it is effective, or if we are doing it because we've done it in the past."

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