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Q&A With Inner Arbor Trust President & CEO Nina Basu

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Nina Basu is the new president and CEO of the Inner Arbor Trust, the entity developing Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods, the 36-acre arts and culture park in Downtown Columbia. The Trust opened its first improvement to the Park, the Chrysalis, a sculpture, park pavilion and amphitheater, in April.
Since taking over the Trust on May 1, Basu has focused on operating the Chrysalis, creating fundraising and operating plans for the Trust and creating strategic partnerships to bring arts and culture to Downtown Columbia.

Prior to taking the helm at the Trust, Basu practiced as an attorney, handling civil litigation matters including commercial, employment, general business and financial services litigation. Prior to forming her own firm in 2012, she practiced as an associate at McGuireWoods, from which point her law career eventually led her an introduction to Michael McCall and the Trust. Initially a volunteer, she then served as the Trust’s general counsel. When McCall began to focus on other projects, Basu was named as his successor.

A lifelong resident of Howard County, she sees herself as a steward for Columbia’s next generation and is motivated to create the type of arts and culture destinations that support families and residents of all ages.

What made you want to leave practicing law to work in your current role?

I’m not sure if I’ve truly left practicing law. I’m a half-time executive here and am managing a small case load in my practice. While I love being a lawyer, it is conflict driven, especially the type of litigation work that I do. Here, I am having way more fun getting to build something that my children and their children will enjoy.

How did you get involved in the Inner Arbor Trust?

I’ve always been involved in Columbia, through the Long Reach Village Board, Columbia Association (CA) and as a volunteer for a number of county commissions and task forces [the General Plan Task Force, the Commission for Women and the Spending and Affordability Task Force]. In 2012, I volunteered to help Michael with social media, planning events and similar issues, then began to serve as the Trust’s general counsel.

After Michael and his company, Strategic Leisure, delivered the Chrysalis and moved on [as planned] to other projects after, he asked me to be his successor.

What will be done to get the Chrysalis operating at peak capacity?

I.M.P. has booked one paid show there already.

The Chrysalis is more than an amphitheater, and has many functions other than merely being a place for paid shows. It is a piece of visual art. It was used during Wine in the Woods and during the Capital Jazz Fest.

It was amazing to see an estimate of 3,000 people on the lawn during Wine in the Woods, enjoying great music at a great new structure. Next on the schedule is the Downtown Partnership hosting Books in Bloom, a performance of the Columbia Orchestra, three concerts sponsored by the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks, a photo shoot for ManneqART — plus the paid I.M.P. bluegrass show. We’re waiting for confirmation on other events.

How do you work with the people who run Merriweather Post Pavilion?

We are working with I.M.A. (It’s My Amphitheater, a subsidiary of I.M.P.), which pays the Trust base rent for three events at the Chrysalis; the bluegrass show is the first of the three. In addition, I.M.A.’s base rent covers a certain number of festivals. I talk constantly with Jean Parker and Brad Canfield of Merriweather, as well as two principals of I.M.P., which is owned by long-time Washington, D.C.-area promoter Seth Hurwitz.

We have a great relationship with I.M.A. as a partner, both in their rental of the Chrysalis and the Park, and as a service provider. They have event management costs, and we turn to them for other services, too. Brad and Jean, especially, understand and buy into what we are trying to do in the Park, which is make Downtown Columbia a destination for all arts and culture. I think the investment of time and money made by all of them speaks for itself.

What’s the latest on the rest of Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods?

Today, we want to get people there to enjoy the space. The Chrysalis is open to the public when not in use. We have varied rental rates, including those for nonprofits, such as the Columbia Orchestra event, which we hope will draw 2,000 people. We also want more up-and-coming bands to get a chance to play there.

We’re trying to activate the space and to help accomplish that goal. To do so, we’re working with Imagination Playground to create play space, and we’re placing picnic tables in the park and creating partnerships to hold more free events, including small “pop-up” events. We’re also holding a public art contest to design chairs as pieces of art that will be displayed in the Park. And by next spring, I want to get a single pathway connection built between the multi-use path on Little Patuxent Parkway and the Chrysalis.

Looking ahead, we need to raise capital as soon as we can for the entire path system and the Butterfly, which will include concessions, bathrooms and a rooftop deck that can be used by the community and can also become a party deck for events, [and] thus will produce revenue. Along with these improvements, we will be planting more trees, fixing the lawns and turf, and restoring the streams.

How optimistic are you that the entire project will get built out?

Very. To ensure that we do that, we are taking care of the infrastructure first. It’s going to take time and money from private donors, CA and Howard County, but with the amazing first step online, … I think its success this season will lead to the rest being built in an expeditious manner.

On that note, there are people who still want to talk about the design for things that are far in the future, but for today I’m on the Butterfly and the path system.
Do you have a timeline for what you want to accomplish?

We want the first pathway connection between the multi-use pathway on Little Patuxent Parkway and the Chrysalis in place by next summer. As for the Butterfly, we want our financing in place within two years. Happily, it will be much easier to build than the Chrysalis, which was a complicated design project. So the Butterfly should take about a year to build, after it’s funded.

How do you plan to find the money to continue building out the park and bring the remainder of the $30 million in amenities and improvements online?

This is about partnerships. Today, we need a revenue stream to pay our ongoing expenses. In addition to private fundraising, we will be making requests of the county and CA, to entities and other partners in our capital programs.

What was your most memorable legal event?

It was a pro bono case where I represented a young woman who was over 18, but still in foster care because the age-out is 21. She and a foster agency were sued by a former foster parent. She was going to get rolled over, but my firm and I jumped in and got a favorable outcome. Sometimes I feel like my most interesting and meaningful cases are those that I don’t get paid for.

What are your thoughts on the plan for Long Reach Village Center?

I am excited about the plan, which will be an economic development driver. Long Reach is an amazing and diverse neighborhood. The center had been mismanaged in the many years after Kimco left by Cedar Properties and then America’s Realty, which was horrible for Long Reach. But our residents are forward-thinking, and we were grateful to [former County Executive] Ken Ulman and the County Council, notably Calvin Ball, for the county purchasing the center.

Today, the Orchard Development team put great thought into a world-class redevelopment plan, which is anchored by a vertical farm with a food court. That also puts power back into the grid and some housing, plus it will be a driver for art and include a dog park.

What nonprofit organizations are you involved with?

Aside from the Long Reach Community Association, I’m involved with the Howard County Commission for Women, the Maryland State Bar Association and the University of Maryland Law School Alumni Board. In addition, I do pro bono legal work for Maryland Volunteer Lawyer’s Service and Free State Legal, the nonprofit providing legal services to Maryland’s low-income LGBTQ community. I’m also super-involved with my children’s school.

What’s the latest on the Howard Commission for Women?

That’s my favorite thing to talk about. We just held a feminine hygiene products drive because there is a need, and no one ever donates them. This is our seventh year holding this drive; know that this is important, because they are not covered by food stamps, and they’re expensive.

And know that food banks served almost 10% of the county’s population of 300,000 last year and that more than one-in-five single-parent families in the county live in poverty. Remember, most people live paycheck-to-paycheck and that means a job loss, the end of a relationship or a health issue can spur most anyone’s financial situation into a tailspin.

You describe yourself as a “Leslie Knope wannabe” in your profile. Why?
“Parks and Recreation” is a great TV show, and I’ve always loved that character because she’s so confident and wants to get things done. I’m also somewhat hyper and completely obsessed with binders, like her character. And now I can direct building this park, which involved a melding of my professional skills and personal passion.
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