Sunny McGuinn misses the days in Columbia when newcomers were greeted with a plate of cookies and a friendly smile and when the town was small enough that most everyone felt they had a stake in its success.

"Unfortunately, we're so busy with our hectic lives that many of us find it difficult to have time for new people anymore," said McGuinn, who moved to Columbia in 1975.

To find time, McGuinn is organizing a project to welcome new residents in the hopes of reversing the erosion of community ties. The project is one of the first tangible results of a civic campaign called the Columbia Voyage that was launched in 1989.

The Voyage, a brainchild of a community group known as Columbia Forum, is intended to help Columbians rediscover the ideals on which developer James Rouse founded their city -- "a garden for growing people."

The Voyage is expected to end in 1992 when Columbia turns 25, the same year as the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landing in the New World.

That might sound corny, but Columbia Forum officials take the endeavor very seriously. They see it as an attempt to shape the future of the city once its developer, the Rouse Co., finishes work on the community's ninth and final village.

One sign of the group's seriousness is the fact that it has two full-time staff members.

Another sign was obvious this week when Columbia Forum officials kicked off a campaign to raise $250,000 for the coming year. Members were scheduled to hold a fund-raiser yesterday at Howard Community College to celebrate what they had accomplished so far. They planned to follow up the event by sending a letter to 20,000 Columbia households asking residents to contribute $10.

Fund-raising got off to a promising start when the Rouse Co. announced it would donate $40,000 to the effort if Columbia Forum could collect $80,000 from other businesses. The money will be used to help Columbia Forum participants follow through on the ideas developed to date.

Forum task forces, made up of about 250 residents, have tackled a broad agenda of ideas dealing with everything from creating a new form of town government to adding streetlights and emergency telephones to Columbia's elaborate network of bicycle paths.

Forum officials expect to work with Rouse's Enterprise Foundation this year to survey the town's housing mix to see whether Columbia can better its recent record for providing affordable housing.

The group also hopes to figure out ways to get people more involved in city volunteer and philanthropic efforts.

Other ideas tossed around include having Columbia become the soccer capital of the United States and establishing a central transportation depot and town hall.

It is the lack of a centrally located town hall in Columbia that helped persuade officials to develop a project to welcome new residents.

Several years ago, Columbia's Exhibit Center closed, taking with it a central point for new residents to get information about the community.

While many of Columbia's village associations have receptions to welcome new residents, McGuinn said many newcomers fall through the cracks because no one visits them at their homes.

She said she saw the change firsthand when she moved from one village to another in Columbia and didn't receive quite the same welcome.

She is hoping to train 90 "welcomers" -- 10 for each village -- by the end of January.

The welcomers will provide new residents with helpful telephone numbers, maps and information on such things as county services and how to deal with Columbia's strict architectural standards.

"Basically, we want to direct them to their village center so they can see all the things we offer," McGuinn said.

Forum officials hope that the welcoming effort eventually will be taken over and financed by Columbia's property owners association, the Columbia Association, said Gayle Saunier, Columbia Forum's executive director.

"We see ourselves as a catalyst for getting things like this started and then moving on to other needs," she said.

McGuinn said organizers of the welcoming effort worry that a smiling stranger bearing a folder of information might not be as well received as a neighbor bearing a plate of cookies.

"We've gone back and forth on whether to bring cookies or hard candies or something. But so many people are suspicious today, especially about food. We might come up with something yet," McGuinn said.