In April, residents in each of the 10 villages in Columbia elect representatives to their village boards, which direct the business affairs of the associations, as well as a representative to the Columbia Council to serve as one of the 10 members of the Columbia Association (CA) Board of Directors. CA is a nonprofit public benefit organization, created to nurture the Columbia vision and to enhance the quality of life for people living and working here. As I wrote about earlier this week, while many villages have uncontested elections; two villages, Harper's Choice and Oakland Mills, have contested elections for the Columbia Council seat. While these Columbia Council elections may not receive as much attention as other elections, they are so important in helping shape the future of Columbia, including issues that impact transforming the downtown core of Columbia into a great place to live, work and play.
In Oakland Mills, Lena Kennedy is a fierce advocate and tireless activist for Oakland Mills and will bring a smart savvy perspective to the Columbia Council. She has been actively campaigning via social media and will help us get through these difficult times and continue to make all of a Columbia a great place to live. If you live in Oakland Mills, please take a moment to vote via mail by the April 23 deadline. To spotlight Lena's candidacy, I exchanged emails with Lena asking her about her perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing Columbia and her village of Oakland Mills.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Columbia Association right now?
If you had asked me this two months ago my answer would have been related to leadership, vision, and preserving the best of Columbia while also embracing progress. These challenges still exist, but they have been consumed by the overarching challenge before all of us.
Like many of us, the Columbia Association is facing as uncertain a future as it as ever known. It has closed nearly all of its facilities, furloughed large but unknown number of its staff, cancelled cherished programs, and is facing financial hardships that it had likely never envisioned in the past. I don’t disagree with the decisions CA and its board have made thus far, though I think residents would benefit from more communication and forthright messaging.
But I am more concerned than ever about CA’s future because how it recovers is an open question. How can we ensure that we won’t lose the critical pieces of CA and Columbia as part of this rebuild?
I am particularly concerned about this recovery process because I haven’t seen the Columbia Association Board of Directors demonstrate the kind of visionary leadership that the times demand of us. Too often, I have seen CA’s leadership get mired in the weeds or personal fights, slowing and even preventing important progress and conversations. We have been able to manage through these internal challenges because CA was on strong footing, but that is no longer the case. We need strong leadership more than ever.
What are the most important issues in the Village of Oakland Mills and what can done to address them?
Oakland Mills is a wonderful place to live, and like everywhere, it has its own set of challenges, many of which relate to the age of our village. Our facilities and housing stock are older than most in Columbia, our demographics are evolving, and our village center has struggled at times to keep up with changes in retail. But Oakland Mills has some of the best “bones” in all of Columbia and with the right leadership, I think we are well-positioned to make progress.
But we are also struggling with an unfortunate and toxic dynamic related to our village’s governance that has ground the Village Board to a halt and has left several members of the community afraid to attend meetings and make their voices heard. Until we can foster a productive and inclusive community dialogue, we will continue to struggle to make progress on our priorities. I am optimistic that with new leadership, we can quickly turn around the unfortunate status quo.
From a financial perspective, where do you think CA is putting too much money? Where should more resources be allocated?
Like the first question, I likely would have answered this differently a couple months ago. Then, my concern was that the Columbia Association focused too much of its resources on the “business” side of its work—the fitness and sports clubs, primarily. I know our clubs and programs have many fans, but I would like to see an analysis of the financial and community benefits of these initiatives, especially in light of changes resulting from the pandemic as well as the growth in “boutique” and other fitness facilities that compete with CA.
I think these questions are as pressing now as they were a few months ago, but now there are many additional questions about CA’s finances that we must consider. And I think this is CA’s opportunity to ask critical and challenging questions about its priorities and investments.
My priority for CA’s finances is to get the biggest bang for the buck for our community. I would like to see funding directed to programs that improve and enhance the quality of life for all residents. I would like to see more access to its community initiatives—like after-school programs, educational and arts-based classes and events, and especially those that serve residents who have been traditionally underserved or excluded from programs because of expense. For instance, what if CA made the CNSL free and open to all Columbia residents?
If there is anything positive about the current situation it is that we have time to consider these important and foundational questions.
As parent, what ideas do you have for events and programs for school-aged children?
I think CA does great programming for kids already. They events they host are well-run and enjoyable, the after-school and summer camp programs are loved by participants, and the neighborhood swim league is perhaps CA’s finest program. I don’t really have suggestions for additional programming, though I am confident CA staff have many more great ideas. What I am more interested in is access to these programs and ensuring that these programs and facilities for kids will continue to thrive under the next iteration of CA.
As it relates to access, the Columbia Association could be doing significantly more to ensure all residents have a chance to take advantage of these great programs. It could establish and strengthen outreach and scholarships to bring more children and family into the programs. It could strengthen its relationship with County government, the school system, and service-based nonprofits to ensure all kids who want to participate can. And it could do this in ways that are “uniquely” Columbian—that is to say, they capture the identity and a bit of the founding enthusiasm of this one-of-a-kind community.
I also think that CA needs to be thinking about events, programs, and facilities for school age children of future generations. Our demographics are evolving, and they will continue to, so I think we need to focus on creating spaces and programs that are truly multi-generational.
Here’s a concrete example: The tot lots in Oakland Mills are regularly proposed for the chopping block by CA. They are too expensive, we’re told, and underutilized by the current residents. And suggestions have been made to replace these tot lots with amenities for adults. But why replace? Why can’t we add something like a bocce ball court next to an existing tot lot? This would bring people from all walks of life together in a beautiful natural setting and what is more Columbia than that?
Anything else you want to add?
One of my frustrations with the Columbia Association’s Board of Directors is how it chooses to use its voice and influence. As the torchbearer for Columbia’s founding values, CA should be promoting the work of building a more inclusive, sustainable, and compassionate community and supporting programs, initiatives, and public policies that advance these values.
Additionally, CA’s rarely speaks about Columbia’s neighborhoods and how life in Columbia is unique and special, so I would love to see them better showcase the unique characters of each neighborhood.