Every November for more than two decades, Downtown Columbia has transformed into a festive landscape of lights and holiday cheer, a veritable Whoville on the Little Patuxent where families from near and far come to soak in the sights of the season at the Symphony of Lights.
This year, however, Columbia faces the prospect of having its signature holiday tradition stolen by a Grinch who brings new meaning to the phrase “missing the forest for the trees.”
Yes, Little Cindy Lou, there is a Grinch, and its name is the Columbia Association.
In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has canceled nearly every concert, festival, celebration and social gathering in our community, the Columbia Association is trying to stop the one event the pandemic can’t — a safe, socially distanced drive-through display of holiday lights.
And unless a rousing chorus of Whos can make this Grinch’s heart grow three sizes, we may all be left in the dark.
The Columbia Association is trying to block the Symphony of Lights by taking an action that would make even Dr. Seuss’s Grinch blush: a lawsuit. The case boils down to competing interpretations of easements — some more than 40 years old — that govern access to Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is owned by the nonprofit Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission and is fully surrounded by land owned by the Columbia Association and which is managed by a separate nonprofit, the Inner Arbor Trust.
These easements provide Merriweather and its guests with irrevocable rights to traverse CA land in order to access the venue. CA, however, is seeking to infringe on those rights and block the Symphony of Lights because of unfounded claims that car exhaust will damage Symphony Woods’ trees.
CA sees itself as another Dr. Seuss character — the Lorax — but it is simply telling tall tales.
CA’s aggressive public relations campaign complains that the event involves cars driving through a natural woodland, but the Symphony of Lights has used the same network of paved surfaces both inside and surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion for years, a network that is currently in use for drive-through COVID testing. CA property used this year for the Symphony of Lights essentially consists of the entry and exit roads to Merriweather.
CA also maintains that it attempted to work with Merriweather to “transition” the event to a new format but was rebuffed. This is only true if you believe the idea that the original Grinch attempted to “work with” the residents of Whoville to update their holiday traditions.
As the most important civic institution in Columbia, CA could have approached this situation with vision and leadership. Instead, it chose to focus on petty legal and personal conflicts across the increasingly crowded organizational landscape of Downtown Columbia. Rather than solve problems, they’ve created new ones and exacerbated others.
Why cancel a safe holiday event when so much in 2020 has been lost? Why target Merriweather Post Pavilion, a community pillar that, like many of us, is struggling to survive during this pandemic?
It might be that they really are a bunch of Grinches, or it might be that they’re trying to ignore their own struggles. Over the past year, the Columbia Association canceled its public programs, laid off many longtime staff members and closed its community facilities and outdoor pools.
Just to be clear: A community services organization that has suspended almost all of its community services to save money is spending untold thousands of dollars to stop a drive-through holiday light display during a pandemic. Welcome to Mt. Crumpet, indeed.
The Symphony of Lights can bring joy to a year that has been dark and full of challenges for so many of us. We shouldn’t let CA cancel yet another 2020 event because of their petty disagreements. Whos of Whoville: let’s raise our voices together and let the Grinch know what we think of its plans to cancel our holiday celebration.
Ian Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.