A couple of city leaders, literally

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Rebekah Sewell

Milton Matthews, the former CEO of the Reston (Va.) Association, recently became president and CEO of the Columbia Association, the planned community’s nonprofit community association. The organization has a budget exceeding $60 million, and manages Columbia’s public spaces, recreational facilities and more.
Photo courtesy of the Columbia Association

After 10 years of marriage, Milton Matthews and his wife Barbara are once again scheduling mid-week date-nights. Otherwise, they tend to see each other only on weekends: Barbara lives in Rockville, Md., and Milton lives in Columbia.

The reason for their two households is not personal but business. They both live where they do because their jobs require it.

Milton was recently named president and CEO of the Columbia Association, a position for which he must live within city limits.

Just last year, Matthews stepped down after nine years as CEO of the Reston Association in Virginia because Barbara became city manager of Rockville, and she also was required to live where she worked. At the time, they both moved from Virginia to Maryland.   

Becoming president of Columbia Association was unexpected. “It was not on my radar,” Milton said. “When this came up, I talked to Barbara. We knew there would be a residency requirement, but she said, ‘if your desire is there, go for it.’”

Milton, 60, had been a finalist for the position of CEO of the Columbia Association five years ago, before he was named CEO of the Reston Association. But the position here opened up again this spring. 

Like Reston, Va., Columbia is a planned community. Both were designed and built by developers whose vision included a town center around which neighborhood “villages” were built, all with a view to creating a high quality of life for residents.

The Columbia Association (CA) is the nonprofit association that manages the community. It is funded through assessments of Columbia’s residential property owners as well as fees collected from its large array of recreational facilities throughout the area. Its annual budget exceeds $60 million. On its board sit representatives of Columbia’s 10 self-contained community associations.

In addition to supporting the village association with part of its revenues, the CA maintains 3,500 acres of public spaces and owns and operates numerous community facilities, including an art center, fitness clubs, 23 swimming pools, and various sporting arenas, including an ice rink and horse center. It also offers many programs, including lakefront concerts, summer camps and volunteer opportunities to enhance the quality of life for its residents.

Getting into governance

Milton Matthews grew up on Virginia’s eastern shore, in a small town called Temperanceville. He originally didn’t think he would work in local government. “I thought I wanted to be in the military,” he said.

Matthews was raised by his great grandparents and was the oldest child in a large family.

He was always an athlete, and has remained a sports lover ever since. “In high school, I played football, basketball and baseball. Then I got to college, and I ran track because I was told, ‘You aren’t big enough to play football,’” he laughed.

Matthews discovered his career calling during his senior year at Virginia Union University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in government and history.

“I had an adjunct professor whose day job was city manager of Richmond, Va.,” he said. “He brought [to students] the practical aspect of local government. I was impressed by his everyday responsibilities and how each day was so different,” Matthews said.

He went on to earn his master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University. He also spent a year in law school at Ohio State, but ultimately left and earned another master’s, this time in city and regional planning.

Soon after finishing school, Matthews relocated to St. Louis, Mo., where he began his career in government administration. He worked there for more than 17 years, and was assistant city manager, director of finance and administration and eventually city manager of Webster Groves, a suburb in St. Louis County.

St. Louis was where he first met Barbara in 1988. She was also a native Virginian and working as an assistant city manager. They were close friends for over 13 years before they married.

Managing planned communities

In the summer of 2004, the couple decided to relocate back to Virginia to help care for Barbara’s mother, who had cancer.

After interviewing with the Reston Association, Matthews realized he’d found a home. “I liked what I saw,” he said simply. He was named CEO in 2004.

Matthews said he is proud of his accomplishments there, especially the changes to the Fairfax Comprehensive plan to allow for the redevelopment of the Dulles Quarter. Among other things, that made Metro’s new Silver Line, which began operating this summer, possible.

He was able to accommodate and manage the parties involved, which included the residents, some of whom were afraid of the changes to the community, and the developers, “who wanted to make sure their investments were going to add value to the community but also be profitable,” he explained.

He is also proud of the working relationship he helped develop among senior staff members of the association, and the fact that he was able to become the public face of the association throughout the community — what he calls his “external” role.

Over the next 20 years, the population in Reston is projected to rise dramatically. “The major influx of residents indicate that redevelopment is necessary,” and Matthews was able to work through its preliminary stages.

He believes his experiences in Virginia will be very helpful to the challenges he faces in his new position here. Like Reston, Columbia is undergoing redevelopment.

The city of Columbia is larger than Reston, numbering over 100,000 to Reston’s 60,000. Because of this, “the programs and services we are offering are much more expansive than they are in the Reston community,” Matthews said.

Advocating for older adults

Matthews’ objectives are strongly influenced by his experiences. For example, being raised by his great-grandparents may have given him a unique perspective on older adults. One of his goals is to make Columbia more walkable for the city’s growing population of seniors, as well as families with children.

“Older adults in the community are moving out of larger homes back into condos, townhomes and apartments, and they want walkable communities where fewer cars are required,” he said.

One of Matthews’ community responsibilities is serving on Howard County’s Older Adults Advisory Committee, which is currently drawing up a 20-year Master Plan for the Aging Population.

In addition, the CA has its own Comprehensive Plan for Serving Older Adults, and the association’s senior advisory committee is very active. “We’ll be hearing from them more and more,” he said.

Matthews plans to emphasize that the CA must work in tandem with its “community partners,” including Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College and the Howard Hughes Corporation, a real estate development and management company.

Though he runs a nonprofit corporation, one thing Matthews doesn’t intend to lose sight of is what he calls profitability. “We have to be profitable [precisely] because we’re a social welfare organization. We make a profit, and then put it back into the community to make it even better,” he said.

Matthews also looks forward to supporting new developments occurring in the area, including the construction of the Metropolitan, a large mixed-unit apartment complex; the renovation of Merriweather Post Pavilion; and the Inner Arbor Trust, which has been approved to build an art park on the grounds of Symphony Woods.

“I’m most excited for the redevelopment and being part of it,” he said. “Understanding that we’re going through this phase is very important for the ongoing viability and desirability of the community.”

Tandem careers

Being career-driven can certainly make it complicated for marriage. Luckily for Matthews, Barbara is equally motivated.

Their secret to a successful marriage? “Respecting each other’s career desires and being supportive,” he explained. “We got married later in life, and we knew who we were. I would not change her, and she would not change me.”

In his free time, Matthews enjoys running, listening to jazz and going to the gym. Though no longer a marathon runner, he plans to start running again in Columbia, joining many of the city’s running residents.

As the new face of the Columbia Association, residents can expect to see Matthews at events and activities throughout the community.

“The quality of life in a community does not exist by happenstance. It’s a concerted effort by a lot of different parties,” he said. “I want Columbia Association to be one of those key parties, leading the others to make that happen.”