Columbia faces challenge of growing older, association head says

January 14, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The president of the Columbia Association said yesterday that the planned community of 87,000 is a "vibrant new city" with a "booming" economy but faces the challenges associated with growing older.

Speaking at the annual State of Columbia luncheon, Deborah O. McCarty painted a picture of a wealthy, well-educated community that has one-third of Howard County's residents and two-thirds of its property tax base.

"Think about the significant contribution Columbia makes to Howard County's prosperity," McCarty told an audience of more than 100 at the event, which is sponsored by the Columbia Business Exchange.

Columbia has 2,800 businesses and more than 500 stores and restaurants, including those at Columbia Crossing, Snowden Square and the newly renovated mall. The city's average household income is $79,300. Seventy percent of its adults have college degrees.

Columbia has nearly twice as many jobs as it has residents who commute to jobs outside the county.

"Columbia in the year 2000 has matured into a vibrant new city," McCarty said. But as the city nears completion and the pace of residential and commercial growth slows, she said, the Columbia Association faces a flattening of revenue, which is forcing officials to find ways to do "more with less."

"We do not have the benefit of new growth at this point," she said. "Columbia is reaching build-out."

More than 30 years after its founding, the city must also address an aging -- and, in some cases, deteriorating -- infrastructure, and a growing elderly population.

McCarty, a former recreation and parks director in Atlanta who took over as head of Columbia Association in August 1998, said Rouse Co. recently spent millions of dollars to renovate and modernize some of the city's village centers. The association has been doing the same at its neighborhood centers.

In an effort to keep residential properties in top shape, a committee of the Columbia Council is looking at ways to strengthen covenant enforcement, one of which is a pilot program in three older villages that would be based on more aggressive property inspections.

McCarty did not address the debate over disparities, perceived and real, in Columbia's newer and older schools. The Columbia Council, the association's governing body, will decide in the next month whether to spend $100,000 to help address academic and image problems at some older schools.

Financially, the Columbia Association's focus is no longer on the construction of things such as pools, community centers and health clubs, but rather on reinvestment in existing ones, McCarty said.

Its proposed $48.9 million budget for the fiscal year that starts May 1 reflects that. McCarty called it a "continuation" budget that holds the line on new spending. Of the total, the $4.8 million proposed for construction is the lowest capital budget in four years.

Though good news for job-seekers, the job market presents a challenge for the association. With unemployment in Howard County at 1.5 percent, it has become increasingly difficult for the homeowners group to find help. Over the course of a year, it employs 1,200 people, including 220 full-time and about 800 part-time workers.

More jobs are on the way. Magellan Health Services of Atlanta and W. R. Grace & Co. of Boca Raton, Fla., announced last year that they would move their corporate headquarters to Columbia.

McCarty said Columbia provides an "incredible array" of facilities and services, including pathways, pools, teen centers and tot lots.

"They are the reason that Columbia is so attractive to so many businesses and the people who come to live here," she said.

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