Winning attitude

Nelson is eager to start at Columbia Association

March 01, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Philip Nelson can't wait to start his new job as Columbia Association president.

"I think it's a great opportunity. I think it's a great place," he said.

Nelson, 59, plans to resign tomorrow as city manager in Troy, Mich., and should be in Columbia full time by the end of April. His wife, Virginia, will stay in Michigan to sell their home.

His term officially starts May 1, when he will replace Maggie J. Brown. The length of term and salary have not been finalized, said Tom O'Connor, chairman of the Columbia Association's board of directors.

Board members said Nelson was a heavy favorite during the closed voting session Monday night.

"Phil gave us a very strategic vision and a nice, quiet Midwestern demeanor," O'Connor said. "It wasn't a close vote."

Alex Hekimian of Oakland Mills liked another quality that several board members mentioned. "I'm just excited about the opportunity for having a fresh perspective," he said.

Nelson's sense of humor also won supporters, O'Connor said. Asked at a public forum Feb. 22 about Columbia's golf courses losing money, Nelson had a quick reply. "It looks like I'm going to have to play a lot more golf," he said. "I love golf. It just hates me."

Nelson, who grew up in Valley Center, Kan., a Wichita suburb, has been city manager in four towns in the past 23 years in Michigan, Colorado and Kansas. Before that, he said, "I did everything from steam-cleaning trucks to putting fish lures together."

He said that running a homeowners association should be a manageable adjustment.

"Any place where you're trying to maintain a community and give services to people and give them value, it's similar," he said.

It was Nelson's retelling of one of those experiences in Michigan that struck a chord with Philip W. Kirsch, the Wilde Lake board member. Kirsch said he wanted to know how Nelson would deal with difficult people.

Nelson described a man who was angry about his tax bill and would show up to pay it each year - slowly counting out one-dollar bills - one minute before closing time.

Nelson finally took the man aside, talked to him about how his money is spent and how only 2 percent of his income went for city services. The man later agreed to appear in a city video describing how taxpayers' money is spent. "He turned that guy 180 degrees," Kirsch said.

Nelson said he's not worried that the terms of four of the 10 board members who hired him will expire the day he starts the job, or by the major redevelopment proposed for downtown or the plan to dredge two of Columbia's lakes.

"We've had staggered terms of office everyplace I've been," he said.

Nelson said he will focus initially on learning about the Columbia Association's planning process and the proposed downtown redevelopment. He also plans to start building relationships with county government.

Nelson's even disposition, sense of humor and ability to unite people drew support from the 10 volunteer board members who chose him, and they felt the homeowners association was ready for new blood, several said. The other finalists were Milton Matthews, 54, CEO of the Reston Association in Virginia, and Rob Goldman, the Columbia Association's 19-year vice president of sport and fitness.

"I think we got a really good person. He really won me over," said board member Evan Coren of King's Contrivance. "He's very much a problem-solver."

Board vice chair Michael Cornell of River Hill said Nelson grew on him.

"He didn't start out at the top of my list, but he ended up there," Cornell said. "He's got a combination of experience, demeanor and ability to build consensus."

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