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Howard County General Hospital Testimony sheds light on Symphony of Lights Dispute

Howard County General Hospital President Steve Snelgrove testified about the Symphony of Lights legal action during the Columbia Association Board Meeting last Thursday July 23, 2020. He explains the importance of the event as a fundraiser for the Hospital, provides useful background information, and clears up other misconceptions.

Below is the written transcript of the testimony.

Columbia Association Board of Directors Speak-out Testimony
July 23, 2020
Dear Chairman Stack and Members of the Columbia Association Board of Directors:
I’m here tonight to clear up some misperceptions and misinformation about Symphony of Lights.
The main message I want to leave with you is this legal action threatens a cherished and time-honored family holiday experience. Couples have become engaged here; a woman gave birth there; three generations in station wagons annually welcome the holiday spirit here.
Legal action also jeopardizes an important funding source for the hard-working caregivers at Howard County General Hospital at a time when they need the community’s support most of all.
I’ll cover a little background which you are probably familiar with – but others who may be watching may not know about.
This event was started 25 years ago, and has always served as a major fund-raiser for Howard County General Hospital.
It has always been a drive-through event, so that’s what the community wants and expects. Also, given the time of year and unpredictability of the weather, a walk-through-only event would likely lead to cancellations and disappointed community members.
For most of that quarter century, things have run very smoothly – with great cooperation between the Columbia Association and Merriweather and major landowners like the Howard Hughes Corp and, before them, General Growth Properties – and tens of thousands of families entertained.
Historically, Symphony of Lights operated in what were the parking lots for Merriweather Post Pavilion - undeveloped areas of the property known as the Crescent. The Columbia Association has historically recognized the value of this event for the hospital and charged a nominal $5 yearly fee as part of an agreement to use some of its property. Change began in 2015 – when we needed to pause the event while we invested about a half-million dollars to refurbish displays and retrofit them with more than 350,000 LED lights.
We knew that funding – which could have gone to patient care -- would provide a major return on investment and keep the event contemporary and fresh. By the time the 2016 holiday season rolled around, the Inner Arbor Trust was fully operating, with an important mission to create community programming in Symphony Woods by generating revenue where it could.
Symphony of Lights, unfortunately from the hospital’s vantage point, was targeted as one of those sources of revenue.
The trust initially requested half of all revenues from Symphony of Lights, and then a $50,000 fee for access to certain limited easements, compared with the previous $5 charge.
Our foundation staff at the hospital had already begun to recognize that in order to grow our fundraising efforts to help our nurses, doctors and patients, other annual events were needed – such as our Heroes in Health Care gala, now in its third year.
Symphony of Lights takes so much time and staffing to run, so, with the approval of our Board of Trustees, we decided to put out a request for proposals to interested parties who would lease or purchase our lights, our trade-marked name, and provide an annual financial return to the hospital by returning a portion of the proceeds.
We completed a competitive request for proposal process in 2019. The Inner Arbor Trust submitted a bid, but it was deemed to be not responsive. The other bidder could not complete the transaction. So we did not select anyone from the RFP process.
Last year, we asked Event Consulting and Management, the local company that had operated the event for the past 25 years, to run the event again, and they did a great job. We’d like them to do it again this year. Effectively, it’s the same arrangement that’s been in place for years, with the company receiving money for their services, and the hospital receiving resources for patient care.
I want to be clear about a couple of points and clear up some misinformation: Symphony of Lights absolutely continues to be an event that benefits the caregivers at Howard County General Hospital.
I’ve read that some people are saying this is no longer a hospital event – that a private company is reaping all the benefits. That’s simply not true. The Howard Hospital Foundation received $75,000 from Symphony of Lights last year. That makes it the SINGLE LARGEST COMMUNITY EVENT that helps the people providing compassionate care for our family and friends and neighbors every day.
I want to put that revenue in context. Maryland has a hospital financing system that is unique in the nation. Our revenues are defined at the beginning of our fiscal year by a rate setting commission and what we are allowed to bill for services is CAPPED by the state and federal government.
The funds raised by the Howard Hospital Foundation give us the resources we need to serve this community in the way we know is necessary – like building the new emergency department areas we opened in the past year, investing in new services like our new breast cancer center and services to treat heart attack victims.
It also enables us to provide underserved and under resourced populations with needed care like the free COVID tests we are currently providing to our faith-based organizations with than 24-hour turnaround time.
We have tasked the foundation with raising money for our latest construction project, and that effort is still ongoing. Additionally, the Howard Hospital Foundation also raises money for our areas of greatest need – its unrestricted fund. Their target this year for that fund is $285,000. And, in fact, we have budgeted to receive these funds in our current fiscal year. So if the event fails to occur, we will be in a hole.
Removing Symphony of Lights as a way to raise money for our needs – as this legal action threatens - would be a crippling blow that eliminates a quarter of that revenue, in the midst of a pandemic as staffing costs are skyrocketing, and revenue is not.
Here’s another clarification I want to offer, regarding making Symphony of Lights a walking event, instead of a drive-through event. I acknowledge that the Columbia Association board and Inner Arbor Trust prefer a walk-through lights festival. Our staff has thoroughly evaluated this option, and unfortunately it just doesn’t work.
Parking and walking long distances in frigid weather make it too uncomfortable and complicated; other factors such as reduced visitor volume, logistics costs, signage and other expenses would mean that Symphony of Lights would return no profit at all.
Plus, it would mean that those in our community with mobility challenges, who simply can’t walk a route of more than a mile in winter weather – or perhaps our frail elderly friends and relatives – can’t participate. It would be a tragedy to establish an event that only served the needs of the few.
I have never promised that this would be a walk-through event after 2019 – because I know it would not work that way. I only said we would not be managing it. The debate and this legal action is unfolding during an unprecedented pandemic that will not end quickly.
The staff at Howard County General Hospital have cared for hundreds of COVID patients since March and are working tirelessly for our community. In the winter months, when flu cases will surge along with an expected rise in COVID, a family in a car will be able to safely drive through Symphony of Lights – effectively in their own personal protective space. Symphony of Lights might be one of the only events that takes place this holiday season given the need to limit large group gatherings.
Our citizens will experience the joy of the holiday season, and they will be helping the caregivers who will be there if they, their children, or their parents or their grandparents get sick.
Let’s not jeopardize this cherished event that the community loves. Symphony of Lights should continue as a drive through event. It benefits our caregivers, our healthcare heroes, on the front lines every day, COVID or not, servicing our community. And we really would love to see a return to the cooperative relationships that we have all enjoyed for decades.
Steve Snelgrove
Howard County General Hospital



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