Town Center gets its wish for building

CA to give control of Historic Oakland for community use

Final decision this week

Officials glad to have 19th-century house, despite drawbacks

February 17, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

An early 19th-century mansion is about to resolve an old complaint in Columbia's Town Center.

The Columbia Council intends to give Town Center officials control of Historic Oakland, an 1811 manor home.

In the past, the Columbia Association has provided space in the building to Town Center but ran the facility itself.

Town Center officials will have authority to schedule programs and the right to collect revenue from rentals under the new arrangement, which was approved by a straw vote Thursday and is expected to be finalized when the council approves its fiscal 2003 budget this week.

Town Center officials have complained for years that theirs was the only one of Columbia's 10 villages without a community building, pool or other recreational facility of its own.

"For 29 years, Town Center residents have put money in this pot, in the CA pot, and we have more than paid for a facility many times over," said Councilwoman Donna Rice of Town Center.

"CA cannot even calculate the millions of dollars that we have put into the pot and subsidized everybody else.

"It's for that reason that I find it hard to believe that any fair member of the board would walk away and say, `You don't deserve it.'"

The Columbia Association will retain ownership of the building, which was built as a Federal-style country home for Charles Sterrett Ridgely of Baltimore, then speaker of Maryland's House of Delegates.

The facility, also known as Oakland Manor, is rented for weddings and business meetings. High tea is served there twice a month. And it is home to Town Center offices, the Maryland Museum of African Art and a nonprofit organization called Helping Hands Enrichment and Leadership Foundation.

The Columbia Association subsidizes the operation heavily: Oakland is expected to lose $279,000 in the fiscal year that ends April 30.

That situation is not expected to change under the new arrangement. In fact, the council talked about whether it should adjust its budget plan to anticipate even higher losses under Town Center management.

Oakland is projected to lose $268,000 in the 2003 fiscal year in the draft budget that the council plans to approve either Wednesday or Thursday. Council members believe the losses could exceed that amount by as much as $60,000 and are discussing increasing the subsidy.

Councilman Miles Coffman of Hickory Ridge said council members were "fooling ourselves" if they thought the transfer would not come with a cost.

"There is going to be a net expense," he said.

Rice said she was a little offended by the suggestion that Town Center would not operate the facility as efficiently as the Columbia Association, but she also said she did not want the council to have "unrealistic expectations."

Rice also suggested that the facility eventually would need renovations because many of the rooms in the mansion are too small for such activities as exercise classes.

"As Town Center grows, we're probably going to outgrow Oakland. But right now, who can argue, because it's 10 times the space that we had before," she said.

Coffman said it might make more sense to find Town Center about 3,500 square feet of space better suited to its needs in an existing office building.

"It looks good this year, but it's not going to look good down the road," Coffman said.

About 4,000 residents live in Town Center, and hundreds of apartments and townhouses are under construction or in the planning stages.

Town Center officials have long complained that their part of town lacks most of the neighborhood amenities for which Columbia is known.

It is not even technically considered a village, though it is often referred to as one.

Town Center was intended to offer an amenity of another sort: downtown living.

Rather than pools and playgrounds, Town Center residents got a shopping mall and downtown lakefront in their neighborhood.

But Rice said the Town Center Community Association has been unfairly hamstrung without a place to hold exercise classes and other programs such as the nine villages offer.

Town Center has had the use of two offices, a closet and a small basement room in Oakland.

"You can just imagine not having the space that will allow you to have a town meeting," she said. "We couldn't even have a birthday party for a child."

Town Center will continue to rent space in the facility for special events and other uses.

But because it will be in charge of scheduling those rentals, Town Center will be in a better position to plan its own programs, Rice said.

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