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Howard County seeks its true identity; Grass-roots effort aims at new vision


In Howard County, community loyalties used to be very clear.

"You lived in Columbia, or in Howard County. You never lived in both," county planning director and native Joseph W. Rutter Jr. says.

Over the years, that division has melted away, but others have grown up: between old and young, black and white, native and immigrant, rural and suburban, industrial and residential.

Now, an effort is under way to create a vision for the entire county -- a blueprint drawn up by citizens to outline ways of creating a true Howard County identity with which everyone can feel comfortable.

Howard County -- A United Vision sprang from people's suggestions to the Columbia Foundation, which put up $15,000. But the creation of a blueprint is being organized as a much wider, grass-roots effort, with the aid of two staffers from the National Civic League, a 105-year-old, Denver-based group dedicated to citizen involvement in building and running communities.

"The time had come. Columbia is changing. The county is where we live," said Barbara Lawson, executive director of the Columbia Foundation. Christine Benero, vice president of the league, said her group decided whom to invite into the effort based on what perspectives should be represented. "If it were just the usual suspects [community leaders], we'll come out with a nice little report to sit on somebody's shelf," which is not the objective, she said.

"We've taken great pains to make sure it's a grass-roots process and not top down," said program director Lynne Nemeth. She added that Howard County is undertaking the effort at a key point -- on the verge of a new century and at a time when much of the county's political leadership has changed, but not in reaction to a huge, unsolvable problem.

The idea is to come up with something that will take on a life of its own, "so it doesn't just lie on a shelf somewhere," Nemeth said.

"All too often, communities wait until a crisis is upon them before taking action. Howard County -- A United Vision is an opportunity for all of us to come together, celebrate our victories, confront important challenges and shape a future that builds on our successful past," the group advertises.

The co-chairman is former County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Sandra T. Gray, wife of County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray and vice president of leadership at Independent Sector, a Washington-based coalition of more than 800 nonprofit organizations.

"I see the value," said Ecker, who became involved last month. "I think if you get the entire county involved in it and, as action plans come out, something will come of it."

Said Gray: "Frequently, we only think about business and government when we think about shaping a community. But citizens have a heavy stake in this. Everybody has a sense of needing to belong somewhere that they value. You can't get it unless everyone is committed to that agenda."

An organizing committee of 18 people has been working since October, and more than 200 people -- called "stakeholders" -- have been invited to participate in a series of meetings. The first one at 6 p.m. March 2 at Savage Mills. A working group of about 100 is the goal, and the group will meet 12 times through October.

Although the meetings will be open to the public and visitors are encouraged to come, a larger public meeting will be held in April or May, Nemeth said.

The stakeholders will conduct an analysis of the county's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and trends. Then it will create a vision statement, identify specific outcomes and form plans for achieving them.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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