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Changes due for Columbia

The Baltimore Sun

Of all that Maggie J. Brown, president of the Columbia Association, has accomplished in her seven years on the job, she is proudest of turning around what was once a chaotic operation.

"Not only was it in chaos as far as the community was concerned, but the morale was low," she said recently. "We were a model city, but there were concerns at the state level. We had to work very hard internally."

Brown assumed her post in February 2001 after a tumultuous nationwide search to replace President Deborah O. McCarty, who had resigned the previous May amid concerns about her commitment to the community and the quality and style of her leadership.

Although McCarty had been on the job for 20 months, she did not sell her home in Atlanta, and her husband continued practicing law there. She did not register her car, obtain a driver's license or register to vote in Maryland. Even state leaders were concerned about the ability of the planned community to weather the infighting and turmoil and to prosper in the climate that existed then, Brown said. .

It took concerted effort to create programs to raise the morale of the Columbia Association team and the public it served, she said.

"The first few years, I had to be a tough taskmaster," said Brown, who added that she stepped into an operation that was devoid of a strategic plan. "The strategy-making plan has become a culture."

Brown, whose contract ends in April 2009, said she hopes to make progress on a new Columbia Association headquarters building proposed near the Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"I'd like to be able to at least look back and say that when it rises out of the ground, my team members will have a place to work," she said.

She said she also hopes to have made progress with a consultant toward identifying successful tactics for the organization and the areas that need work.

Brown plans to make strides in creation of a watershed plan, as well. "We need an overall plan," she said. "I think it won't just be the Columbia Association or Columbia; it will be all of Howard County."

Even as strides are made to improve the community on various fronts, there are events that jolt everyone, like the recent stabbing at The Mall in Columbia.

When an incident like that occurs, Brown said it's a good reminder to people to look inward to their own families and how they are raising their children.

Brown says she shops at the mall and is never troubled or frightened by the teens she sees there.

Brown, who spoke to Columbia founder James W. Rouse about his ideas for Columbia's future years ago, says she is excited to be a part of the redevelopment plan for the downtown.

"I remember him saying to me that in his opinion Columbia was not finished and that the people would ultimately determine its future," he said. "I would think he'd want us to continue that vision -- the open, caring part of it. He was most interested in what community would be about. One of his favorite things was to grow loving people."

As Brown watches progress toward redevelopment downtown, she sees the struggles of those who are resistant to change.

"I can certainly be one of those people who's entrenched in the vision," she said. "To some people, it's hard to let go of what was, and to embrace the change, and to roll up your sleeves, become involved and to work to get the best solution."

"Things have changed, and for those of us who haven't moved with it, it becomes very difficult," she said. "At one time, all the village centers were thriving. Everyone gathered there. It became a way of life. Those things are changing, and that's hard to accept."

What would Rouse suggest?

"I would think he would think we need to find better uses for our village centers," she said. "Maybe they could turn into great social places."

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