Many recall Columbia's resilience on mall shooting anniversary

Columbia's perception of itself as a safe, pleasant community of choice was not changed by the shooting.

Less than two months after a gunman killed two Zumiez employees, and then himself, inside The Mall in Columbia last January, Jessamine Duvall, manager of one of Columbia's 10 village associations, received a call from San Diego.

On the line was a woman who was relocating her family to Maryland. She wanted to know what kind of place Columbia was to raise a family.

It's not an unusual call for Duvall to get – a village manager often meets and hears from new and prospective residents – so she began "selling Columbia," recounting the planned community's founding principles of social justice and diversity, listing the many Top 10 lists it is on and generally describing Columbia as an "idyllic planned community."

But when Duvall started touting the community's safety, the woman said something Duvall did not expect.

"She said, 'Every time I Google Columbia, I keep seeing articles about the shooting at the Columbia mall,'" Duvall said.

That comment "blew my mind."

On Sunday's anniversary of the shooting, a number of Columbia's prominent residents share Duvall's beliefs. The community's perception of itself as a safe, pleasant community of choice was not changed by the shooting.

"The big thing is how resilient our community was," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who often walks around the mall for exercise in the mornings.

If anything, the response to the shooting seems to have strengthened the community's beliefs in itself to many who call it home.

"It doesn't change my attitude about Columbia at all," said Pat Kennedy, a longtime president of the Columbia Association.

Kennedy said that while he was "obviously disturbed" by the shooting, he thinks "this community, while not immune from problems, is able to face up to it and deal effectively with it."

Barbara Kellner, director of the Columbia Archives, agrees.

"It's good to remember, and particularly remember the community's response, the wonderful way that Howard County Police Department and Howard County government handled the situation," the Columbia resident said.

"It affirms the caring nature of Columbia in Columbia's response," Kellner added. "That's what I would like to remember from the incident."

Barbara Lawson, a nearly 40-year resident of Columbia and Town Center, said the response is what stuck with her.

"This is life. It doesn't matter what community you live in. ... Every community around the world experiences these tragic, awful things. My experience is the goodness of people rises to the surface," Lawson said. "To me, the very best of what I consider about Howard County was at the surface of the response."

Tom Coale, a former Columbia Association board member and Howard County blogger, said his most important take-away was also the response.

"If you ask any random person on the street about who they remember from that episode, it would be Chief McMahon and how he handled himself. And then for me personally, I'll always remember the photo of Fire Chief [Bill] Goddard comforting one of the friends of the victims the day that the mall reopened," Coale said.

"I can't explain why the response was not more one of fear, but I think this community embraced the opportunity to show its strength and resolution to go about living its day-to-day life."

And although the shooting didn't affect how many residents feel about Columbia, it shaped their views about other issues, starting with gun violence.

"It changes the way I think about the prevalence of guns and availability of guns," said Linda Wengel, a 33-year resident of Columbia and a Town Center Village Board member. "It just shows the prevalence of guns can show up anywhere any time."

County Council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa, who represent parts of Columbia, said the anniversary sheds light on the county's progress on mental health initiatives in the past year -- an effort led by former County Executive Ken Ulman.

They point to such efforts as the creation of a behavioral health task force, increased funding for mental health programs and added mental health staff positions within the county government and county police department.

"I think [the shooting] was a painful reminder of how important it is to invest in mental health and public safety," Ball said. "I think we always have the potential of being led by fear, and I think that we have to turn away from fear and turn toward opportunity, and we have an opportunity to continue investments in mental health."

Terrasa said, "I think [the shooting] prompted some really good discussion, and I'm hoping that we're going to be able to make some real progress."

Sigaty said it took about a month after the shooting for mall traffic to get back to normal. But on Thursday she was at the mall walking and noted that it's thriving.

"The tenor feels as though people are comfortable again just leading their lives," she said.

"I think in the whole scheme of things, what we could say is even though we had an experience that no one wants to happen, I think the community recognized that it shouldn't define us."

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