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by Mark Kelly — December 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm 0

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Mark KellyAt last Saturday’s County Board meeting, Walter Tejada lashed out at the decision to derail the Columbia Pike trolley project.

In his lengthy diatribe, Tejada extolled the virtues of planning by Arlington County. One would think based on the tenor of Mr. Tejada’s comments that all the projects Arlington County embarks on turn out well — even the ones that have substantial opposition during the planning process.

Then on Wednesday, County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended the closure of the Artisphere. While millions were already poured into the project, this decision will stop the ongoing millions in annual taxpayer subsidies to an arts center that was supposed to be self-sufficient by now. Once again, it appears Arlington leaders are bowing to realities many of us saw coming before a single tax dollar was wasted on a project.

Yet, just 18 months ago, then-Chairman Walter Tejada had this to say about the Artisphere:

“The Artisphere is an ongoing investment in Arlington’s future,” he said. “It’s helping to building our arts and cultural community. This is a proven and documented economic development strategy that attracts the young, educated demographic who are the workforce for the technology and innovation sectors.”

“Artisphere is on its way,” he concluded. “We expect the Artisphere to become a self-sustaining organization.”

The Artisphere was a planning failure that could have been avoided had the County Board heeded the warnings of fiscal watchdogs at the time.

Now comes Wednesday’s decision to bail out the Signature Theater — again. In a disappointing 5-0 vote, the County Board forgave $411,000 in past due utility and lease payments and will not charge the theater anything for its $90,000 per year lease for the next 19 years. This move comes on top of a smaller $250,000 bailout 18 months ago. Total forgiveness of obligations due to Arlington County under the original Arlington Way planning process for Signature will be $2.371 million over 20 years — a pretty nice Christmas gift for the theater.

The Board also refinanced the theater’s loan at a rate of 1 percent per year in exchange for United Bank forgiving $2.7 million due to them. These new loan terms are a pretty good deal for the theater considering the Board on Saturday refinanced other County debt at 2.52 percent.

Last night as debate was wrapping up, Tejada and Chairman Fisette emphasized what was being done for Signature was not a “gift,” it was a “loan.” You could make the argument that initial planning had failed and cutting a deal to bail out Signature should be done, but saying it was only a loan does not make it so. Just like claiming the Columbia Pike trolley was a good idea that deserved to go forward because it had been planned for 15 years did not make it so.

Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

by Max Burns — December 18, 2014 at 1:30 pm 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

MaxBurnsThis has been a year marked by a constant stream of contested political campaigns in Arlington that resulted in the election of new members of the School Board, County Board, House of Delegates and Congress.

During that time of intense internal political focus in Arlington, I also had a chance to participate in the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership — a program that promotes the values of trust, civility and respect in its graduates through direct engagement with communities around Virginia.

Over the course of 2014, as it has for 20 years, the Sorensen Political Leaders Program brought together each month professional, civic and political leaders and future leaders — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — from every region of the Commonwealth. The Sorensen Institute has long worked to provide meaningful conversation and consideration of the issues facing our localities and our Commonwealth. It stresses open dialogue, looking beyond surface and party/ideological differences, and clear, fact-based thinking about policy challenges we face.

My Sorensen experience has given me a broader perspective in which to view the eventful 2014 in Arlington. As we near the end of the year, it may also be worthwhile for our progressive community to step back and analyze the current political situation in our county.

It’s been a challenging year for the Arlington County Democratic Committee. We faced an unexpectedly strong challenge with John Vihstadt’s candidacy for the County Board. We struggled against the image of a local party so used to victory that no other outcome was possible.

Also, few political groups have to contend with normally dry discussions about membership bylaws and steering committee procedures becoming front-page news. Yet, ACDC found itself in that place this year when senior party officials decided to endorse and campaign for a non-Democrat contrary to national, state and local party rules. That difficult situation played out in a very public way.

While the rules were clear, we fell short in building understanding in the community about the way that party rules and ACDC procedures work, why those rules exist, and how few people they affect directly.

We now know that Arlington — like other parts of the country in 2014 — faced a shake up and increased skepticism about politics, elected officials and institutions generally.

Regrettably, this led to instances when civility broke down within ACDC and also within broader community conversations about the County Board, its policies and the 2014 election.

One of Sorensen’s most valuable lessons for me is that, difficult as it can seem, we are better served moving past our knee-jerk responses and exploring issues more deeply — even if the end result isn’t as self-validating as we’d hoped.

That is why I believe “The Arlington Way” deserves better than increasing derision in the community. While criticized as an empty buzzword, it does have the benefit of urging us to approach disagreements with civility and respect as we strive to make Arlington a better community.  Those core principles underpin good government regardless of party or candidate.

It’s time we reinvigorated the phrase and recommitted to building a community that takes seriously the input of a broader range of Arlingtonians, whether they are political activists or choose to spend their time contributing in other ways. How we conduct ourselves as we strive to build better schools and more responsive public services is every bit as important as the quality of schools and services we provide. So let’s set an example. (more…)

by Peter Rousselot — December 18, 2014 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotThe past year was filled with revealing stories about Arlington and Virginia politics and government. Here are my top five:

5. APS Capacity Crisis Grew

County and APS demographers continued to present sharply differing forecasts of population growth and APS enrollment. The County and the schools failed to develop a unified plan that even came close to explaining how Arlington will pay for the construction of the new school facilities that will be required.  For no compelling reason, too many sites, designs, and financing options were not on the table for discussion.

4. Medicaid Expansion Failed

After Virginia Republicans gained control of the Virginia state Senate, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposal to expand Medicaid in Virginia was blocked by Republican majorities in both legislative branches. While Republican leaders in other states passed their own legislation to expand Medicaid, Republican leaders in Virginia failed to do so. The failure by Virginia Republican legislative leaders to present and lobby for their own alternative Medicaid expansion plan was a major disappointment.

3. McDonnell Convicted

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was found guilty of violating federal criminal law relating to public corruption. Most legal experts and political observers agreed that Virginia’s state criminal laws on public corruption are so full of holes that McDonnell could not have been successfully prosecuted under state law. Far from discouraging corrupt conduct, Virginia’s porous state laws continued to enable it. The McDonnell verdict highlighted the need for both Virginia and Arlington to strengthen their laws and ethics policies.

2. Streetcar Cancelled

The County Board’s decision to cancel the streetcar was the right decision as a matter of public policy. When the costs of a $500+ million project are so disproportionately greater than any possible benefits, no other decision would have made sense. A public majority correctly decided years ago that streetcars made no sense for Arlington. They could not understand the Board majority’s stubborn refusal to cancel the project. The abruptness with which the belated cancellation was announced reinforced the public’s conclusion of failed Board leadership.

1. Vihstadt Elected Twice

John Vihstadt’s elections to the County Board by landslide margins in April and November were a fitting recognition of his 30 years of community service. Independent Vihstadt’s decisive November victory, at the same time as Democrat Sen. Mark Warner also decisively carried Arlington, repudiated the insular thinking and policies of Fisette, Hynes, and Tejada on a wide range of issues. Arlington voted instead to prioritize spending our tax dollars on core services:

  • public schools,
  • basic infrastructure (sewers, water mains, roads),
  • sensible transit, and
  • public safety.

Conclusion:

These 2014 stories provide important background for 2015.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.\

by Ethan Rothstein — December 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm 0

John Vihstadt was sworn in for his first four-year term on the Arlington County Board yesterday evening before an overflow crowd in the County Board room.

It was the second time in a year Vihstadt was sworn in, after winning a special election in April to replace Chris Zimmerman, who resigned in February. In both cases, Vihstadt, a Republican-endorsed independent, defeated Democrat Alan Howze, who was in attendance yesterday.

“Our campaign brought so many people together, united with a message of fiscal responsibility, greater transparency, accountability and checks and balances,” Vihstadt said. Each of his electoral victories were by substantial margins, and came as surprises to many election observers.

“They were not victories based on one issue, despite what some have said, but many issues,” he continued. “They were not victories for national issues, but local issues. Issues that our county can do something about today, tomorrow and the next day.”

Vihstadt’s election was the biggest factor in the County Board’s decision to cancel the Columbia Pike streetcar last month, and as he laid out his priorities for his term, his fifth and final one was directed at the residents of the Pike, Pentagon City and Crystal City corridors. Despite the streetcar’s cancellation, he vowed to bring a more robust transit system to the corridor in the future.

“Yes there are wounds in our community,” he said, “but we need to work together to bind them up in a collaborative fashion.”

Vihstadt acknowledged his 94-year-old father, Ed, whose bible he was sworn in on, and his two sons, Ben, a college student, and Jack, a resident of the Columbia Pike area. He also reminded residents that his contact information is on his website. “Please use it,” he said.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette closed the ceremony, minutes before his last meeting as this year’s Board chair, and said he already has a good working relationship with his newest colleague.

“John’s sense of stewardship and responsibility have already become apparent and are very much appreciated,” Fisette said. “I have no doubt that Arlington’s future is bright and that John Vihstadt will be a part of that future success.”

by Ethan Rothstein — December 18, 2014 at 10:30 am 741 0

Signature Theatre (photo via Signature Theatre website)The Arlington County Board unanimously approved a $5 million loan and 19 years of free rent for Shirlington’s Signature Theatre at its meeting yesterday.

The decision came just hours after County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended closing Rosslyn’s Artisphere next June. The County Board ultimately decided that the two arts organizations’ situations were different enough to begin a new investment as it acknowledged the failure of a previous one.

“Signature really is an Arlington treasure,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette said. “It reaches into our community and impacts our community in substantial ways.”

The theater will receive the loan at a low, 1 percent interest rate; it will no longer have to pay $411,000 in unpaid county taxes and fees; and $2.7 million of its $7.7 million debt to United Bank will be forgiven.

“Signature will pay back this loan in full and on time,” the theater’s managing director, Maggie Boland, told the Board. “We often joke that ‘hope is not a strategy’ at Signature. We don’t commit to a production plan that we can’t afford.”

Signature’s yearly debt payments will be reduced from more than $1 million to about $300,000, a difference that county Director of Management and Finance Michelle Cowen called “transformative.”

“It allows them to bulk up on their balance sheet, which is in poor shape,” Cowen said.

There were 11 speakers from the public, and eight of them spoke in support of the County Board’s action. Many of the supporters were either current or former members of the Signature in the Schools program, Shirlington business owners or those with active interests in the theater’s success.

“We believe Signature is vital to the overall success of Shirlington and the greater Arlington County community,” Ken Mosig, director of asset management for the Village at Shirlington’s parent company, Federal Realty Investment Trust, said. “Their programs attract people to the Village of Shirlington. Having Signature Theatre as an entertainment venue has helped bring 100,000 people to the area per year.”

Among the dissenters were Jim Hurysz and Tim Wise, two frequent County Board critics and opponents of government spending.

“Taxpayers who oppose public subsidies for the arts do not oppose the arts,” Wise said. “We just think the arts should pay for themselves.”

Board member Libby Garvey asked Boland why they couldn’t raise ticket prices to generate the additional revenue, needed, but Boland said that if the tickets were any more expensive, “that would be detrimental to our business.”

Although the County Board unanimously approved the loan — the money for which comes from FY 2014 closeout funds — several members indicated that this would be the last chance Signature has for county funding for some time.

“We don’t want to be here again,” Fisette said.

Photo via Signature Theatre website

by ARLnow.com — December 18, 2014 at 9:15 am 1,115 0

Artisphere Preview 015(Updated at 9:40 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan is recommending that the county close the Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn after the first half of 2015.

Donnellan said Artisphere “has not lived up to projections” and would likely require substantial taxpayer support to stay open — more than $2 million per year.

Based on subsequent comments from County Board members, it appears that the Board is likely to adopt the manager’s recommendation next year.

Do you agree that Artisphere should close?

by ARLnow.com — December 17, 2014 at 4:20 pm 3,930 0

Artisphere sign(Updated at 5:20 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan says the county should close the Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn.

Donnellan made the recommendation at today’s County Board meeting, after being charged by the Board earlier this year to study Artisphere and suggest a way forward for the money-losing, county-run center.

“I will be recommending that the county close the Artisphere as a cultural center in fiscal year 2016,” Donnellan said. “This was a business decision… this was a tough decision, a disappointing one. The reality is that the Artisphere has not lived up to projections.”

Donnellan said Artisphere, in her opinion, would require “substantial ongoing tax support.”

“That is not what we promised our community when we opened Artisphere,” she said. Artisphere will remain open through June 30. It will close after that, if the County Board adopts Donnellan’s recommendation. After Donnellan gave her report, it became clear that the Board was behind her decision and it’s likely the art center will close on June 30.

“I support what you suggested, that next June, Artisphere would close as we know it,” Board Chair Jay Fisette said. “My hope is whatever option will move forward on our economic competitiveness goals one way or another.”

County Board member John Vihstadt, who had used the Artisphere as an example of wasteful county spending in his election campaign this year, obliquely referenced the county’s cancellation of the streetcar last month.

“I think we all realize the changing course on a long community initiative, as has happened in the last few years and months, is never easy,” he said. Speaking to reporters after the meeting had adjourned, he added, “I think it was the right decision. I was concerned about the Artisphere all along.”

County staff will be studying options for sub-leasing Artisphere to a private company or a private-public partnership in the “arts, media, technology” space, or returning it to landlord Monday Properties, Donnellan said.

She called the recommendation “a repositioning, not a retreat.” County staff will be tasked with coming up with a new art plan for the county, one that reflects current fiscal realities.

“Smart communities know when to reevaluate decisions,” Donnellan said.

Here Cafe + Bar in ArtisphereThe 62,000 square foot facility opened with a flourish, at a cost of $6.7 million in October 2010. Optimistic projections of a quarter million annual visitors quickly crashed down to earth in 2011. Visitor revenue was 75 percent below expectations, and Artisphere’s in-house restaurant closed after just a few months in business.

Arlington Economic Development assumed control of Artisphere by the end of 2011, and began implementing a business plan that included shorter hours and actively renting the facility for non-art-related events. The changes were successful by some measures, but problems remained — the facility again went over budget in Fiscal Year 2013. Last month, County Board allocated $1.3 million in its annual budget close-out for Artisphere-related expenses next year.

Donnellan told reporters after her report that 20 part-time and 12 full-time staff work at Artisphere, and some may be able to continue working in other areas of the county, but there will be some who lose their jobs.

The County Board may officially decide to close Artisphere before its April budget motion, Vihstadt said, and Donnellan said she will soon begin discussions with Monday Properties about the space’s future.

This evening, Donnellan will ask the Board to approve a $5 million loan to another art center, Signature Theatre. She said the two recommendations are “business decisions” and should be looked at separately.

by ARLnow.com — December 17, 2014 at 3:40 pm 1,013 0

County Board Chair Mary Hynes' chair was "yarn bombed"Mary Hynes is slated to take the chairman’s seat on the Arlington County Board next year.

Current Board chair Jay Fisette announced the expected leadership succession at the Board’s afternoon meeting today (Wednesday). Hynes is currently vice chair of the County Board.

Walter Tejada, meanwhile, is to be next year’s County Board vice chairman. The changes will take effect with the Board’s Jan. 1 organizational meeting.

Hynes and Tejada are both up for reelection in 2015.

by ARLnow.com — December 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm 409 0

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) (courtesy photo)Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia’s junior U.S. Senator, has issued a statement supportive of President Obama’s historic policy shift on Cuba.

Today Obama announced that his administration will normalize diplomatic relations and ease economic restrictions on the island nation. Also announced: that American Alan Gross and a U.S. intelligence asset were freed from Cuban jails, in exchange for three jailed Cuban spies.

Kaine’s brief statement:

“I am overjoyed by today’s announcement of Alan Gross’s release and wish him the very best as he reunites with his family and loved ones. His release marks a victory for American diplomacy. I’d like to especially thank Pope Francis and the Canadian government for their role as intermediaries in this effort.”

“Our relationship with Cuba will not change overnight – human rights and political freedom are important concerns that we will continue to raise with the Cuban government. But as the reestablishment of U.S. diplomatic ties with Vietnam proved, engagement rather than isolation is often more effective at advancing American interests and democratic values.”

by Ethan Rothstein — December 17, 2014 at 12:00 pm 836 0

This week’s Arlington Pet of the Week is Duncan, a squirrel-chasing Westie with an Instagram following of thousands. Here’s what owner Rick had to say about his hunting hound: Duncan…

by Ethan Rothstein — December 16, 2014 at 3:45 pm 4,306 0

Arlington Public Schools has released preferred and alternative plans for its revision of the North Arlington elementary school boundaries. Under the preferred plan, five schools — Taylor, Glebe, Ashlawn, McKinley and…

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