Life in Howard County has taken some unexpected turns over the past few years, prompting a nonprofit group to try to map its future.
"The environment is very different in 2003 than in '97, '98, '99, and there are lots of unintended consequences," said Ron Carlson, who is on the board of directors of Vision Howard County, a civic group working to better the county's quality of life through private and public collaborations.
Group members point to many changes over the past few years: Howard's definition of safety was altered by terrorist and sniper attacks. A new county executive took office with new ideals, as did a new school superintendent and community college president. The economy grew shakier, the population more diverse, the undeveloped land more scarce and the taxes higher.
"We're really challenged by some tough problems," Carlson said. "They've raised the question of, `Where are we going?' "
To try to answer that, Carlson and his colleagues have asked county leaders - including County Executive James N. Robey, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown - to define their visions and plans for the future during a town meeting at 7 p.m. June 5 in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
The public is invited to fire questions and ideas at the panelists, telling them which direction the county should go.
"It's time to come together and talk about these things," Sandra Trice Gray, president of Vision Howard County, said during a news conference yesterday to promote the meeting.
The group's hope is that the communication will uncover problems in the county and find ways - and volunteers - to address them.
"We're not going in with any preconceived ideas," said Barbara A. Russell, another board member who expects the public to set the agenda and, with any luck, find the "energy to get on board and become involved."
Vision Howard County, which grew from a grass-roots planning project by Gray and former County Executive Charles I. Ecker in the late 1990s, has at its core a belief that the community needs to steer its future, but the organization is not averse to providing the road map.
Last year, Gray's group put together a quality-of-life report - which Carlson calls the Dow Jones of the county's health - showing that while Howard may not have much room for new housing, it has ample space for improvement.
The report is not always flattering: The Little Patuxent watershed can't support aquatic life, it says; available public transportation is inadequate; affordable housing is scant; and the homeless population is growing.
But the report is also very positive, explaining why Howard remains a favored spot to live: Education is top-notch; the unemployment rate is below state and national averages; the population is well-educated; the crime rate is low.
Those conditions are worth fighting to preserve, group members said, while still working to improve the negative. But for that to happen, residents need to show up.
"These are very hard things to pull off," Carlson said of the meeting format. "[They] require a lot of active citizen participation."
But the payoff is big, he added.
"I can't think of another time where this panel has come together talking about the future at the same time for a two-hour period," Carlson said. "This is a way for us to ... say as a county who we are and where we're headed."