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Columbia is poised for a flourishing future [Commentary]

President and CEO, Howard County Library System

 Part of our series of essays from leaders imagining the future of Columbia.

Several years ago, Morning Edition aired a report discussing why certain cities attain success — like those in Silicon Valley. University of California-Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti explained that, while no magic formula exists, governments desiring thriving communities should invest in "the one thing that we know is a factor in why places succeed: education."

In Howard County, we've known this since our inception, and for Columbia, that was 50 years ago. Happy Birthday, Columbia! It's time to celebrate!

Indeed, together, we have attained noteworthy accomplishments — starting with high-quality public education. This includes our key educational institutions: Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), Howard Community College (HCC) and Howard County Library System (HCLS).

What is HCLS' role in education? Benefitting students of all ages, HCLS designs and delivers a curriculum that comprises three pillars:

I. Self-Directed Education through a collection of one million items in print, audio and electronic formats, and thousands of specialized online research tool;,

II. Research Assistance & Instruction for individuals and groups through classes taught by HCLS instructors and;

III. Instructive & Enlightening Experiences through cultural and community center concepts; partnerships such as A+ Partners in Education with HCPSS and HCC, HCLS Project Literacy, Choose Civility and the Enchanted Garden; as well as signature events, such as notable author appearances, HCLS Spelling Bee, Battle of the Books, HiTails Ambassadors and HiTech, HCLS' STEM education initiative.

In addition, Columbia has always focused on inclusive diversity — from Jim Rouse's legendary vision that guided the development of Columbia based on human values, to today's Choose Civility initiative, which includes the annual Human Library, where "books" are people and "reading" is a conversation, dismantling stereotypes and prejudices; and the Longest Table on June 28 (details at where guests will share meaningful conversation over dinner. We take pride in our diversity and our fundamental values of respect, empathy and inclusiveness.

We celebrate the culture of partnerships, which Columbia's pioneers cultivated and passed along to subsequent generations. At HCLS, we firmly believe that working together strengthens our society. Whether partnering with HCPSS and HCC to increase students' academic achievement; STEM industry leaders for our HiTech initiative; business, nonprofit, government, faith-based and more than 100 organizations for Choose Civility; or the numerous other groups with which we work on various events and initiatives, we are stronger together to the benefit of everyone who lives and works here.

A final highlight, we celebrate our prosperous business community, which generously contributes staff and financial resources to our education and nonprofit sectors. We are especially grateful to the numerous businesses who have supported our signature educational initiatives.

These are but a sampling of what has built an extraordinary Columbia over five decades.

What will the future bring? I predict that our centennial will highlight all of the above-noted hallmarks, and the completion of the Downtown Columbia Plan.

Although a decade away, this plan includes a new HCLS Central Branch and Business/Arts Education Center. We are imagining one of the world's most beautiful, iconic libraries. We envision an education center that creates intellectual, interactive and enlightening experiences for all ages, reflected through museum-quality exhibits and sculptures, as well as creative classes and performances. The visual exhibits, remarkable architecture, auditorium and ample gathering spaces will bring people together and make the new branch a focal point for the new downtown. While a sizable investment will be required, this new branch represents a wise investment in education, ensuring a flourishing future for generations to come.

On a personal note, looking forward to Columbia's next 50 years is bittersweet, as my husband and I are moving back to the West Coast in August. This remarkable community has been my home for the last 16 years — a culturally rich place where we raised our son and where I've had the privilege to be president and CEO of your library system. Whether participating in our son's education at Harper's Choice Middle School and Wilde Lake High School, enjoying Columbia's arts and culture scene or hosting friends and family at our house on Swansfield Road, I've enjoyed every minute of our time here. For all of this, I extend my profound gratitude.

"I'm going to miss this place," my mother said last week as we hiked the Harper's Choice pathways — a regular excursion when she visits from Indiana. She was referring to the lush tree canopies, creeks, birds, the deer we had just spotted and (her words) "friendly humans."

Nodding in agreement, I said, "Me too. Especially the friendly humans."

I'm thinking it might be time for Howard Countians to be on Morning Edition. I do believe we may have figured out that magic formula.

Valerie Gross is president and CEO of the Howard County Library System.

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