A nonprofit coalition long frustrated in its efforts to find a home for a 24-hour crisis support center for Howard County is beginning a series of small group meetings with possible neighbors tonight, hoping for better communication - and a better reaction - than before.
The coalition met with fierce opposition from communities surrounding the earlier three sites it considered - two in Columbia, one in Ellicott City.
Tonight's discussions will focus on a fourth site, the former Harriet Tubman school near U.S. 29 and Route 32 in Columbia. County Executive James N. Robey has suggested the campus as a possibility if the community supports it.
Now at the two-building site are school system maintenance workers, Head Start classes and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, one of the three groups trying to join forces under one roof to create the crisis center.
Tonight's 7 p.m. community meeting had been intended only for members of the Locust United Methodist Church on Martin Road in Columbia, but it has developed into a public meeting.
Residents who heard about that assembly, the only one yet scheduled, passed out fliers urging community turnout over the fate of the only African-American high school still standing in Howard County.
"It looks like it's going to be a larger meeting," said Lynne Nemeth, a project manager for the coalition.
"We're hoping to have a dialog rather than to have people hardened in their stances before we even begin," she added.
But some neighbors of the Tubman campus are saying they do not want a larger crisis center in the neighborhood. Locust United Methodist's secretary, Roberta Kelly, expects a crowd tonight because she has heard plenty of concerns.
It's partly about the history, neighbors say.
A remnant of segregation days, the campus was a victory for the African-American community when it was built in 1948 after years of requests. The school - named after the Underground Railroad heroine - closed in 1965 when students integrated the white high schools.
"We want to use it as a museum or a learning center," said neighbor Beverly Wilson, who graduated from Harriet Tubman High School in 1964, as did her husband. "We do not want it as a crisis center."
Nemeth said the coalition is talking to the Howard County Center of African-American Culture about the options for partnerships. The African-American center is leasing space elsewhere in Columbia and for 15 years has been interested in moving to the Tubman campus, but Nemeth said the coalition did not know that until recently.
She said it's a large space - about 45,000 square feet - and there's room to share.
"We absolutely would want to preserve the history and legacy of the building," said Andrea Ingram, executive director of Grassroots. "We definitely would need to work with the African-American community to do that properly."
Wilson, who has lived near the campus for about 35 years, said a small area to honor the school's roots is not acceptable. "We want the whole school, if we can, to turn it into something very positive," she said.
Nemeth said the proposal to bring Grassroots under the same roof with the Domestic Violence Center and the STTAR Center for victims of sexual assault - whether at Harriet Tubman or elsewhere - would reduce costs and enable the groups to help more people.
In addition to services offered by the groups, which range from counseling to shelter, the center would have a 24-hour hot line and a neutral area for divorced parents to exchange their children.
"The clientele that the center is serving is people who are victims; these are people who need help," Nemeth said.
"We hope that a county that is so progressive and so well off would embrace the idea of taking care of people who are less fortunate."
Patricia Laidig, who lives about a block from Grassroots, said she is trying to learn more about the feeling in the neighborhood that the campus had been promised for community use. But she said Grassroots has never caused problems and has no objection to the center.
"I just feel very strongly that we all could be one step away from needing a crisis center in our lives," she said.
"If not in our own back yards, where? These are our neighbors."
Coalition members are contacting residents in different parts of the community to set up small neighborhood gatherings, Ingram said. She said people who want to hold one or join a citizens advisory group can call her at 410-531-6006.
"It could be 10 to 20 [meetings]," she said. "It's neighborhood by neighborhood. ... One neighborhood already said, `We don't need a meeting; we don't have a problem with this.'"