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Nonprofit center model comes to Columbia

A vision floated more than two decades ago to bring local nonprofit organizations and human service agencies under one roof is materializing in a small corporate park in Columbia.

A dozen local agencies and organizations have moved into the nonprofit center at 9770 Patuxent Woods Drive, which will serve as their headquarters and as a one-stop-shop for clients they sometimes already share. A ribbon cutting is scheduled for June 9.

The nonprofit center model aims to reduce operating costs and create a more efficient and convenient place to receive services. Organizations share conference rooms, event space, printers and a mail room and collaborate on client referrals and programs.

"I can't imagine the experience of a client coming in. It's a dignifying experience," said Bita Dayhoff, president of the Community Action Council of Howard County.

The Howard County Housing Commission, one of two anchor tenants, holds the center's master lease, while the Association of Community Services, a nonprofit organization that works with the county's human service entities, manages the project. HopeWorks, a nonprofit agency that serves victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in Howard County, is the other anchor tenant, joining other organizations like the Howard County Autism Society and Bridges for Housing Stability.

Carole MacPhee, the commission's head, lauded the center — from the new, consistent furniture throughout the facility to the overarching vision, which was championed by former commission head Tom Carbo. Carbo died late last year.

"This is a work that he wanted to finish. … We built and designed houses and so now we finally built and designed a house for ourselves," MacPhee said.

Open office space in the center allowed Mike Couch, executive director of Making Change, a nonprofit that aims to boost financial stability, to move the organization from his Ellicott City home to the center.

"We normally go to where the people are, which we'll still continue to do. But we're hoping that everybody starts to come over here," Couch said.

In his county budget, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman included $300,000 in one-time costs and committed $210,000 per year in rent subsidies — required by local lawmakers to continue for 10 years — to jumpstart the project. Three spots remain vacant.

"It really is a one-stop shop for almost everything we have in Howard County," Kittleman said.

Funding was the missing piece that forced two previous attempts at a nonprofit center to fall through, including a plan to create a center near the lakefront in Columbia nearly 20 years ago, said Joan Driessen, ACS's executor director.

There were many logistical challenges. Having heard the idea floated around several times, some nonprofits were unconvinced of signing a 10-year lease, especially given the hurdles of securing furniture, timing the end of their current leases and finding a central location that fit each entity's unique needs, Driessen said. Three spots remain vacant.

HopeWorks, for example, required a separate entrance for victims of domestic violence and ex-offenders.

Leaders at Foreign Born Information Referral Network, a nonprofit that works with refugees, immigrants and other foreign-born people, decided to move to the center, althought it did not match the way the organization conducts business. FIRN required a separate entrance and receptionist to answer immigration-related questions, among other needs, said Hector Garcia, FIRN's executive director.

Abby Glassberg, a real estate agent who helped broker the project, called the center the "highlight" of her more than two-decade career. Finding a location with accessible public transportation for clients, many of whom are low-income, was critical, she said.

"It began with an idea that began with looking for space. We were all caught up in the excitement and the dedication of the county and others. It's like the stars aligned," said Glassberg.

More changes are on the way in the area.

The nonprofit center is part of Kittleman's vision to create a community resources campus in the same corporate park. His budget includes funds to help the county's Department of Housing and Community Development, the county's Department of Community Resources and Services and the Maryland Department of Social Services relocate to the same corporate plaza.

FIRN could consider moving to that campus, Garcia said.

Several of the county's departments will be displaced when the county razes government offices in Columbia to make way for a new courthouse. The administration is also looking to create space for a new innovation center in Gateway, a 70-acre corporate park in Columbia, by shuffling other local organizations.

"It's like a chess game," Kittleman said. "There are so many pieces at play. You move one and you have to figure out how to strategize with the other."

For now, one piece is ready to go.

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