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Questions, He has Questions, About the Aquatics Center

Last night, based upon a "breaking news" report at ARLnow.com and a press release from the county's spinmeisters, your humble scribe growled about the County Manager's announcement they were ready to move forward on their efforts to add a swimming pool and fitness center to what they consider their environmental showcase Long Bridge Park, former brownfield land.

According to Wikipedia, "(b)rownfield land is an Anglo-American term used in urban planning to describe land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution including soil contamination due to hazardous waste. Land that is more severely contaminated and has high concentrations of hazardous waste or pollution, such as a Superfund site, does not fall under the brownfield classification. After clean up, such an area can become a community park or business development."

Thankfully, Scott McCaffrey of the Arlington Sun Gazette brought some much needed historical context today in reporting on the County Manager's latest efforts to move forward on the Aquatics Center. His lede begins this way:

"Arlington officials think they’ve found a way to ensure the stalled Long Bridge Park aquatics facility and fitness center gets back on track. But questions remain about how much county taxpayers will be asked to subsidize the facility once it is up and running. (emphasis added)

"County Manager Mark Schwartz and his staff on April 25 outlined a plan what would have a design firm and contractor in place by the end of the year on a project that is slated to cost between $63 million and $67.5 million to build."

McCaffrey began laying out some of those questions, writing:

"The aquatics center/fitness facility has been on hold since 2014, when concerns about high construction and operating costs led then-County Manager Barbara Donnellan to shelve it. Last year, current County Manager Mark Schwartz returned with a downscaled plan more real-world than world-class in nature.

"But while county officials have the cash in hand to build the facility, thanks to voter support in bond referendums held in 2004 and 2012, there remains the question of how much of an operating subsidy will be required once it opens. (emphasis added)

"County Board member John Vihstadt questioned staff on the matter at the April 25 gathering. The staff response: No detailed analysis has been completed since last year’s projection that the facility would run an operating deficit of between a half-million to a million dollars per year – not counting the cost of servicing the construction debt, which could add another $3 million or so to annual costs until it is paid off. (emphasis added)

"Schwartz said that staff time in recent months has been spent on the construction side of the proposal.

“Staff has been working hard,” he said. 'We have a good sense of the schedule.'"

He continued peeling back the historical onion, writing:

"County Board members seemed optimistic, if a tad subdued, as the plan was rolled out for their inspection. Vice Chairman Katie Cristol said the plan “largely looks positive.”

“I’m looking forward to that design competition,” she said.

"Vihstadt, who catapulted to office in 2014 largely due to voter dissatisfaction with high-ticket capital spending projects, asked what happened to Schwartz’s plan of last year to get corporate and philanthropic sponsors to pick up some of the costs. The county manager backed away from that idea – calling the possibilities “limited” at this point – but held out some hope. (emphasis added)

“I’m not going to say ‘never,’” Schwartz said.

"County voters in 2004 gave thumbs up to a bond referendum that, they were told at the time, would cover the entire cost of the Long Bridge Park complex, including sports fields, an esplanade, aquatics center, fitness center, parking and other amenities. But eight years later, there was not enough funding remaining, and county officials were forced to go back to the voters in a second referendum. (emphasis added)

"The verdict from the electorate was a split decision: The 2012 park-bond referendum won support of 63 percent of voters, a landslide by traditional accounting, but ran 20 percentage points behind a school bond on the same ballot.

"Critics derided the ballooning cost of the aquatics center as another example of a county-government vanity project, a list that included the Artisphere arts center, “million-dollar bus stops” on Columbia Pike and the South Arlington streetcar project. (emphasis added)

"In the years since, the streetcar has been shelved, the Artisphere shuttered and the transit stops on Columbia Pike scaled back to about half the original projected cost."

Thankfully, Arlington County citizens and readers of the weekly Arlington Sun Gazette have Scott McCaffrey, who brings much needed historical knowledge and knows the questions to ask.

To read McCaffrey's entire report, click here.

Our August 4, 2016 Growls included links to several other Growls where you can obtain additional historical information about the Aquatics Center.

Do you have concerns or questions about the Aquatics Center in particular, or Long Bridge Park in general? If so, Growls readers are encouraged to contact the Arlington County Board. Just click-on the following link:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

UPDATE (4/27/17).  Washington Business Journal reported yesterday on the County Manager's decision to move forward on the Aquasphere (Artisphere + Aquatics Center). The Washington Business Journal article by Michael Neibauer, explains the pros and cons of the "design-build method," which the county will use for the first time:

"The county will use, for the first time, the design-build method, where the chosen contractor is required to meet a budget chosen at the outset. Design-build controls costs, but it also limits the types of programs that can be built into the center.

“We’ve selected design/build as the best way to fulfill the vision for this unique park in the most cost-effective manner," County Manager Mark Schwartz said in a release. 'We are eager to move forward and develop conceptual designs that the public will have an opportunity to weigh-in on this fall.'"

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