Putting into words a vision for the future of Howard County is no simple task. It took 200 people about eight months to come up with one, complete with ideas for strengthening the community, improving transportation, providing more affordable housing and embracing diversity.
Making that vision a reality is a much more daunting proposition.
"I think it's very ambitious, and I'm not sure that the community has the commitment to fulfill a lot of it," said Priscilla Hart, a member of the steering committee for Howard County--A United Vision, the effort to craft a comprehensive plan for the future.
It's a tall order, to be sure. The group, which began working in March, convened to come up with a people's vision for the county, to look at what residents say they want for their neighborhoods, their schools, their children, their environment. The group, a brainchild of the Columbia Foundation, released its final report last month at a celebration at the Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia.
"I think the whole process was excellent," said Steven Adler, a Columbia Foundation board member who also served on United Vision's steering committee. The United Vision group, which spent $170,000 of public and private money on the project, was headed by former county executive Charles I. Ecker (D) and Sandra T. Gray, vice president of a coalition of nonprofit groups and the wife of County Council member C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia). Members split up to toil for months over eight key subjects, including development and redevelopment, health and human services and regionalism.
"We really felt that we're not a big town, and if we had a very inclusive process, it would be interesting to see what comes up," Adler said.
Each work group developed broad goals, strategies and action plans for achieving its goals. In the area of education, for example, one goal was stated this way: "Every student attending Howard County public schools should have the opportunities and resources necessary to succeed." Strategies linked to that goal included evaluating alternative education programs in the county, offering vocational options and improving English-language programs.
That work group also stressed the need for equity among schools and lifelong learning resources, and it said partnerships between the Board of Education, teachers, parent associations and county government will be necessary to reach the goals.
The health and human services group established a goal that every person be able to meet his or her basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, personal safety and health care, and it set a timetable for accomplishing steps toward that goal. Within a year, the report said, the county should partner with public and private health care providers, insurers, advocates and consumers to assess health and human services and needs. Within two years, the partnership should yield its first status report and an action plan for meeting needs.
As the county prepares an update of its 20-year General Plan for growth, a United Vision work group on development and redevelopment suggested sustaining older communities and commercial areas and directing new growth to the eastern section of the county where water and sewer service either exists or is planned. Achieving that goal would involve--among other things--working with community groups, expanding homeownership opportunities and developing "mini master plans" for growth.
A group devoted to housing issues offered up the county's mixed-use zoning as a possible way to expand low- and moderate-income housing because it calls for different housing types.
"I couldn't agree with them more that it is one of the venues for facilitating that kind of housing, but where? In whose back yard?" responded county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who has seen residents fight vehemently against two current huge mixed-use proposals that would provide some affordable housing.
A separate group focused on diversity issues, hoping to empower the powerless, foster a sense of belonging and create an environment where everyone is valued. Pretty lofty stuff, but important, group members said, especially given Columbia's long-standing emphasis on inclusiveness.
"The report is a testimony to what we have been and a vision and strategy for what we might become," Ecker and Gray wrote in a letter accompanying the report.
The group has created a committee to work on implementing the plan. It is expected to eventually establish a permanent civic organization based on the United Vision project.
Of the report's stated goals, Rutter said: "There are probably some goals that need some more fleshing out as part of our General Plan process, there are some that are probably pie in the sky, and there are some that we will probably be able to implement right away."
To Hart, the tough road lies not in the months she and others labored on the report, but ahead, in getting the community to buy into it. "It takes all the citizens to make it work," she said.