Oakland Mills, one of Columbia's original villages, has suffered significant hits in recent years: a perception of high crime, gaping vacancies in its village shopping center and a grade-changing scandal in its namesake high school.
The community has been attempting to reinvigorate its community and image, and the Enterprise Foundation - a national neighborhood revitalization group founded by James W. and Patty Rouse - is stepping in to help. At a community meeting tomorrow, the group will talk with residents about their concerns and attempt to find solutions.
"It is not a bad neighborhood, but it is going in a direction that isn't quite right," said Sandi Abadinsky, an Enterprise spokeswoman. "Instead of looking back in five to 10 years and saying, 'Look at the mess we have to fix,' let's start right now ... before anything starts to become a bigger issue."
Enterprise's interest in Oakland Mills began about two years ago, after the Rouse Co. asked the foundation to research ways to improve the village. The foundation usually works in communities that are struggling to "retain or to develop some sort of an economic life," such as Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester, said David Fromm, an Enterprise senior director.
"It's a more well-to-do community than what we're normally used to working in, but we decided we would take this on," Fromm said.
About $90,000 is dedicated to the project in funding from Enterprise, Rouse, the Horizon Foundation, United Way and the Columbia Foundation, Fromm said.
Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the Columbia Council, said the basis of the project is that Enterprise is committed to finding and funding solutions. She said the community feels as if it has routinely identified areas of concern, and it is time to "cut to the chase."
"The thing that's so important about it is that the whole reason for engaging in this process is not just to identify problems and then hope that someone out there somewhere, sometime might be able to deal with them," she said.
Dana Bourland, Enterprise's community planning program director, said the foundation has been researching the key concerns of residents: safety - there have been two homicides in the village since last year - revitalizing the village center, supporting residents' diverse needs and the village's image.
Its image took a hit in the fall with a grade-changing scandal at Oakland Mills High School that resulted in the school forfeiting its winning football season.
A key component of the village's success is its shopping center, which opened in 1969. The biggest loss came in 2001 with the closure of its anchor, Metro Food Market. Last month, the Last Chance Saloon - a 23-year-old neighborhood pub where many longtime residents gathered - closed. Other recent vacancies include Allfirst Bank, which left in 2002, and an Exxon service station, which closed in 1999.
But developments are expected to happen soon. Food Lion is to move into Metro's vacant space by next year, and a 96-unit apartment building for senior citizens is proposed for the former Exxon site.
During tomorrow's meeting, residents are invited to share their ideas about improving the village, and the foundation will then create an "action plan" of proposed solutions by April, Bourland said. AmerciaSpeaks, a nonprofit group that specializes in organizing such gatherings, will be facilitator for the meeting.
Bourland said the Enterprise Foundation's work with Oakland Mills - which is Columbia's third village, incorporated in 1968 - will also serve as a model for how to approach other aging villages.
Russell is expecting that the village can benefit "tremendously" from working with Enterprise, and she said it is an appropriate time to "direct attention on the village."
"I would say that Oakland Mills in many respects is a great neighborhood," Russell said.
"The greatest strength of Oakland Mills is the people who live there, the sense of community, the sense of caring."
Tomorrow's meeting will be from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Other Barn, 5851 Robert Oliver Place. Information: 410-772- 3072.