Proposed facility divides residents Health club raises questions about role of CA in community



An article in Sunday's Howard County edition of The Sun about a proposed Columbia health club cited a publication of the Rouse Co. In fact, that publication was "published through a partnership between Patuxent Publishing and The Rouse Company," according to the publication.

For 25 years, Columbia resident Rosemary Eisenhauer paid little attention to the politics of her planned community. Then, a $6 million health club crawled under her skin -- a health club the Columbia Association (CA) wants to build in the River Hill village along the new town's far western edge.

For Eisenhauer and many longtime Columbia residents, the proposed health club raises fundamental questions about the purpose of CA, the $38-million homeowners association that manages the parklands and recreation facilities for the community of 83,500 residents: Is CA's purpose to serve the developers still creating Columbia's newer, wealthier areas and non-Columbia subdivisions along its fringes or to serve the bulk of the town's residents -- many of whom live in the community's aging, less well-off core?

"The older villages are in danger of becoming slums," says Eisenhauer, who lives in Harper's Choice, which opened in 1969 as one of Columbia's original villages. "The recreational facility would further divide the haves and have-nots."

Her opinions appear to be shared by many Columbia residents, including the president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. Other critics question why CA would borrow $6 million when it already is $90 million in debt -- debt ultimately shared by all Columbia property owners.

Supporters of the proposed health club bristle at the notion that it is somehow divisive or a benefit for the wealthy at the expense of those less well-off. They reply to debt concerns with figures showing the new health club will earn profits of more than $1 million a year that could be used to chip away at the $90 million debt.

The supporters also say the new health club would serve residents throughout Columbia who now exercise at CA's two crowded indoor recreation clubs. Because of recent Route 32 improvements, it's only a 10-minute drive from The Mall in Columbia to the health club site, off Route 108 near Route 32.

Says David Berson, who represents River Hill on the 10-member Columbia Council: "CA rarely has had the good fortune to be faced with a project that meets the needs of so many Columbia residents, provides such a large stream of positive net income, and clearly meets the Columbia Association's goals, objectives and policies."

The Columbia Council, under Columbia's form of governance, must approve all CA construction projects. During Columbia Council elections in the spring, three anti-health-club candidates ousted pro-health-club incumbents -- creating a council that now is split evenly over the project.

Tomorrow night, CA will hold a meeting with the three new council members to begin lobbying for the health club. "I see it as an education process," says Rob Goldman, who manages recreation facilities for CA.

But the new council members remain skeptical. One of them, Wanda Hurt, said that during her campaign voters told her repeatedly that they opposed the River Hill health club. "There was a lot of animosity towards it," she said.

The council will vote on construction funds for the project early next year.

But critics fear the health club is a done deal, if only because developers want it to lure homebuyers to fast-growing River Hill and nearby non-Columbia subdivisions to the west and south of River Hill.

Potential homebuyers might get that impression when visiting Angel Rose Court in River Hill, where about a dozen expensive model homes are displayed.

Inside the homes, a publication of Rouse Co. -- the huge real estate company that has made hundreds of millions of dollars developing Columbia -- touts the River Hill health club: "[T]he Columbia Association has already earmarked space for a new athletic club. The club will house a pool, a women's gym, locker rooms, Nautilus weight machines, an aerobics room and a gym for basketball or volleyball."

And real estate agents in the area acknowledge the proposed club is a bonus.

"It's a plus, certainly, to have it there because it's another selling point," said Melvina Brown, a Re/Max agent in Columbia. "Young people, they're very conscious of their health, their well-being and their physical fitness."

But many Columbia residents say CA and the developers are moving too quickly.

Robert A. F. Turner, president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said the proposed facility flies in the face of Columbia's goal of mixing people of different races and different incomes.

For 10 years, he said, the African American Coalition has fought unsuccessfully to place more affordable housing in River Hill.

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