At the end of April, County Manager Mark Schwartz presented the County Board with a plan to put the construction of the Long Bridge Aquatics Center back on track. The timing of the announcement came as a surprise to many, but was met with excitement from those who have long pushed for a facility.
The facility had been shelved three years ago because the County Manager could not find a bid to build out the original plans with the $79 million available. According to some familiar with the process, none of the bids on the 116,000 square foot facility were even close. And there was little political will at the time to go back to the voters for more funding.
The already approved bonds had been voted on under a generic “parks and recreation” banner instead of holding a straight up or down vote on funding the facility. The Board has provided more detail about projects in recent bond questions, but future projects of this size and scope should receive a straight up or down vote to stand or fall on their own merit.
The Good – At a price tag of $63 million to $67 million for a 73,000 square foot facility, the County Manager looks like he may have solved the problem of going back to voters for more bonding authority. There is currently $64 million earmarked for the project out of $79 million in bonds that voters originally approved.
The Remaining Questions –
(1) The more recent update of operating cost information projects a $2 million drop in annual costs while slightly increasing revenue from programming. The projection reflects a drop in the net taxpayer subsidy to the facility from $3.2 million to about $1 million annually. As the pool project moved through the process a few years ago, the ongoing operational costs continued to balloon.
(2) The County Manager provided few answers into any real work he had done to investigate corporate partnerships, agreements with local universities or naming rights to help offset the construction or ongoing costs. It would be nice to know if this facility could be operated at zero net cost to the county on an ongoing basis.
(3) The Long Bridge project is still nearly three times the cost of an aquatics center that Alexandria plans to build. Both facilities will include a 50m pool, but the Arlington facility will be a custom designed building, include an additional pool and provide additional fitness space.
There is still work to be done before the aquatics center project receives the final go ahead. Taxpayers will be best served if the pressure remains to keep both up-front and ongoing costs in check.