When about 40 residents, business executives, clergy and other local leaders gather tonight to begin a two-day forum on ridding Columbia's Harper's Choice village of crime, one of the first orders of business will be separating perceptions and fears from realities.
Organizers of the forum say the two are rarely the same.
The impact of a robbery, for example, may be felt by the person victimized, but "a group of teen-agers drinking on a tot lot affects a whole community," says Sgt. Karen Shinham, who heads the county police Community Services Bureau.
The forum, which will be held at the Columbia Inn on Wincopin Circle, will be led by representatives of the Community Policing Consortium, a national group of police foundations and organizations, and the Howard County Police Department
The idea is to develop community-based policing and anti-crime programs for Harper's Choice that can be used as models for other areas in the county.
Residents and merchants in Harper's Choice say they have already taken the first steps to fight the petty crimes that used to plague what was seen as as a decaying, older village center. Lacking a major grocery store -- the Valu Food closed in 1995 -- the center's stores had trouble attracting customers.
"The village center was dead. You were almost afraid to go there," says Helen Sutusky, a former member of the village board who plans to attend the forum.
A $3.5 million renovation and a new Safeway supermarket are helping to draw more traffic through the center off Harper's Farm Road. That, in turn, is reducing crime.
"Things have changed for the better around here," says Yvonne Shaw, manager of the McDonald's in the village center. "The storefronts are filled. It's prettier, cheerful and clean."
Joe Staib, who runs the Juice Bar in the village center, says that he was robbed at gunpoint last year of about $300 but that that was an isolated incident.
"This village center took a bad rap. Now, pretty much all the stores are taken.
"The center's come a long way." Staib says.
But many say it still has a way to go, and area residents, merchants and security guards say the village center and the areas around it are far from immune to crime.
They tell of problems such as drug sales, vandalism and theft from cars.
Merchants and residents say drug sales often occur in corners of the village center, near the pedestrian footbridge that crosses Harper's Farm Road and near the Abbott House apartment building. Residents whose houses back up to pathways complain of groups of teen-agers loitering late at night.
"It's just like Baltimore City or Washington, D.C., but it's got lawns," said a private security guard who patrols the Harper's Choice village center and refused to give his name.
In some older neighborhoods in Harper's Choice village, residents complain of unkempt rental properties and trash. They worry that property values will drop.
"The place doesn't look the way it used to," says Joyce Stanley, a member of the village board, as she stood in her Grand Banks Road neighborhood. Stanley is attempting to establish a homeowner's association to help keep up the community.
Among the suggestions for improving the Harper's Choice village likely to be brought up at the forum are additional lighting, motion sensors and signs prohibiting loitering.
Any success in crime-fighting that comes out of the weekend forum, organizers say, will depend on the level of community involvement.
"We've asked all the sayers and doers in the community to pitch in," Shinham says. "People are going to have to make a commitment."
Pub Date: 6/12/98