The last discussion centered on Howard Research and Development and the pace at which Village Centers were constructed. We almost have twice the number of Village Centers that we had in 1980, and the same number of families with kids. I believe that is a top-three reason why the Village Centers are struggling. Today I will take a look at the effect of the historically low percentage of family with kids households on the Columbia Association.
Much like Howard Research and Development, the Columbia Association has shown a similar fidelity to the Columbia Plan, although their results are somewhat mixed. Forty-nine years ago (almost to the day), James Rouse presented plans for Columbia and distributed binders with information on how the city would be organized. Within this binder, there are many references to what would ultimately become part of the Columbia Association.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD CENTER (page 25)
Throughout Columbia, in keeping with the goals originally set, will be the opportunities for people to enjoy a number of neighborhood conveniences. At an appropriate location within each neighborhood, again within easy walking distance of many homes, several acres have been set aside for the neighborhood center.
The neighborhood center will be designed for the whole family, but especially for the smaller children who also need opportunities for fun and growing up in safety. The elementary school is the focal point of the neighborhood center. Included also will be a nursery school and kindergarten. For even the smallest children whose mothers must keep an appointment or attend to a family errand, the neighborhood center will also provide a child care center. For after school hours and summers, a child’s playground adjacent to the school will be easy to reach for even the smallest resident of the neighborhood.
Near the elementary school, a small shop, similar to the little country store of many years ago, will answer the very basic needs of the residents. A loaf of bread or a newspaper, a milkshake or a sandwich will be available at the neighborhood store, a small shop attractively designed for convenience and compatibility with the surroundings.
The neighborhood store will operate every day of the week, and every evening. In the mornings, mothers whose small children are at the nursery school can meet for a cup of coffee. Next to each store will be a terrace where people will be able to sit and talk. In the afternoons, teenagers will use the same healthy environment as a place to meet and converse with friends.
In season, the terrace will be opened to the neighborhood swimming pool. On Sunday afternoons, the families of the neighborhood will be able to swim in the pool, or play tennis or enjoy some other recreation at the neighborhood center. In the evenings, clubs and groups will have a good, easy to reach place to meet to carry on their activities. All of the opportunities that were once possible only in very small towns will be part of the rich fabric of life in Columbia.
As Columbia progressed through the 1970’s, neighborhood center construction was severely curtailed. This marked the first departure from the Columbia Plan. In the Villages of Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Harper’s Choice, and Long Reach, the neighborhood center concept is intact. Of these villages, only Hobbit’s Glen (HC) and Kendall Ridge (LR) do not have neighborhood centers. More telling are the younger Villages of Owen Brown, Hickory Ridge, Kings Contrivance, Dorsey’s Search and River Hill:
RECREATION AND OPEN SPACE (page 35)
Of the 14,000 acres planned for Columbia, almost 3500 acres will be set aside as permanent open space, preserving forever valuable natural resources and attractions. This land will be bound by appropriate legal covenants, to be drawn to the satisfaction of the County Commissioners, to assure its continuing preservation and maintenance as true open space.
But the legal retirement of this land from development does not of itself make the land really useful to the people of the County and the community. In the plan for Columbia, much of the land has been designed for recreation. Five lakes, totaling over six hundred acres of surface, will be developed as natural attractions and as resources for many kinds of sports and recreation. The lakes will be stocked with fish, picnic grounds will be cultivated along the shore, and sailboating and canoeing will be open to all.
Throughout Columbia, an extensive system of riding trails and pathways will offer scenic walks or horseback riding through many miles of woods and stream valleys. Each neighborhood will include swimming pools and tennis courts, as well as playgrounds and park areas.
Much of the open space planned follows an earlier proposal of the Howard County Parks Advisory Board for the conservation of the important stream valleys in the area. These valleys serve as the basic drainage system for the County as a whole and as a sanctuary for wildlife in the many balances of nature. Columbia has determined to respect the land, not just because the land is beautiful, but because it is fundamental to a good environment.
As part of the land acquisition for Columbia, CRD purchased the Allview golf course. The plan for Columbia calls for the rebuilding and upgrading of Allview – as a golf course. In addition, two other golf courses are planned in the community. Each village and neighborhood of the town will be close to many recreation opportunities made possible through the cultivation and preservation of meaningful open space.
What we are looking at here are broad trends over time measured with a calendar. Columbia’s adult population has grown for more than forty years. This adult population has also seen growth in the demand for fitness programs, and the Columbia Association has met that demand well. With each wave of fitness programs and/or equipment, the Columbia Association has adapted well. Whether it was aerobics, Pilates, Zumba or Nautilus machines, steppers, Lifecycles, rowing machines, treadmills or elliptical machines; the Columbia Association has found a way to integrate these into their membership offerings. It’s hard to criticize success; however, this single segment of the Columbia Association recreational portfolio cannot be taken as a success of the whole division.
On the aquatics front, CA was celebrating the grand opening of the Hopewell and MacGills Common Pools (Columbia’s 14th and 15th pools) in 1980. Within a few years, the CA Board of Directors would fundamentally change the outdoor pool philosophy. They changed the name of the pool division from neighborhood pools to outdoor pools; indicating that they no longer intended to construct an outdoor pool in every Columbia neighborhood (my regrets to Elkhorn (OB), Pointers Run (RH), and Fairway Hills (DS)). Although this represents another departure from the Columbia Plan, CA did go on to build eight more pools over the last thirty years.
It was in fact pool attendance data that started me thinking about what was going on in Columbia. Early in the Columbia Association Aquatics Master Plan discussion, the Columbia Association handed out a document titled “Demographic Pool Trends (PDF).”
There wasn’t a full decade worth of data (I vaguely recall that there is some problem with the fidelity of the data from 2001-2005) for the last ten years, but a regression analysis of CA pool attendance from 2006-2010 does show a negative trend.
The decreasing percentage of families in Columbia has also impacted the CA budget, and hard. If you talk to the folks at CA, they will tell you that membership retention has been in line with their projections. It is a fact that CA does not have any fiscal problems and its balance sheet is healthy. However, over the last four months, I have talked with dozens of families in Columbia about what CA services they use. When comparing family expenditures on CA services to married couples and singles, the Columbia Association and families are far more tightly bound to each other.
First a caveat, for the most part, I am talking about people on lien assessed properties. That is the one equalizer in Columbia – we all pay the annual charge. Beyond that, families that sign up for an amenity or Package Plan membership pay the highest cost (family memberships cost more than individual memberships). In addition, Columbia families enroll their younger children in the CA School Age Services program (before and after school care), day programs at the Supreme Sports Club, and during the summer months – weeks and weeks of summer camps. For those single parents or dual income family households, these CA services are a necessity. Many families also have birthday parties at CA facilities, as well as participate in CA swim leagues and martial arts. Most that I have talked to appreciate the services and, with a hiccup here or there, are pleased with the services provided. All told, these Columbian families pay approximately $10,000/year (each) to the Columbia Association.
To put that in context, consider if we increased the number of Columbian families with children by 10%. A 10% increase in families with kids is approximately 4000 households. If 1/3 of these households (1334) participate in the services listed above, that translates into more than $12,000,000 going to the Columbia Association each year. Many of the remaining households would also participate in the Columbia Association, through membership and other activities. As a note of caution, the 1/3 participation rate is an estimation, and not all families will participate in all activities/amenities. However, taken together the additional revenue and increased utilization of existing facilities would bring in millions of annual revenue and put to rest the discussions about closing pools or repurposing tot lots.
One final note on the Columbia Association; the CA Board of Directors and CA senior management has been focused on the projected demographic changes and the increase in the senior population. They are to be commended for being in front of this issue. However, part of their effort has been directed at increasing senior participation through limited memberships. These memberships have been rumored to be around $200 per year. If you do the cost analysis on this, it would take 50 participating seniors to equal bringing one married couple with kids into the city. So here is the question, “Would it be easier to get 50 seniors to obtain a membership, or one family?” If you draw out this analysis the answer becomes a little clearer: “Can we get five families to move in and take advantage of CA services faster and easier than recruiting 250 seniors?” In an ideal world, CA should recruit both groups, but over the last few years, I have not heard much from CA about recruiting families to live in Columbia. Now is the time for residents to advocate for a balanced approach.