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County Board Approves Long Bridge Park Aquatics Center Contract

The Arlington County Board voted 4-1 at its Tuesday meeting to build the Long Bridge Aquatics & Fitness Center, the first of its kind in the county.

The Board approved a construction contract worth $60 million with Coakley & Williams Construction, Inc., which was one of four finalists to propose a design for the center.

The new facility will have a 50-meter pool, diving towers and a family pool, as well as spaces for health and fitness and public events among others. The contractor can then add extra features from a “menu” of potential options, so long as it stays within budget.

“This is the culmination of 10-plus years of planning,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette said in a statement. “As our transformation of a brownfield into a vibrant park is fulfilled, we should all be very proud that a long and sometimes challenging community process has yielded such a great outcome. The centerpiece of this project will be an attractive, energy-efficient aquatics and fitness facility that will serve our community for generations.”

Board member John Vihstadt voted against the project on the grounds that the county cannot afford the $60 million price tag and projected operating costs of more than $1.1 million a year.

He added that when voters approved funding in two bond referenda — 2004 and 2012 — the funding landscape was different, and the phrase “aquatics and fitness center” was not mentioned in one referendum.

“With an uncertain economic outlook and in the face of so many competing priorities, from schools to Metro, and more, I cannot in good conscience support moving forward with this $60 million project as proposed,” Vihstadt said. “[It] is simply not fiscally prudent to ask Arlington’s taxpayers to take on this new and costly capital project (at $60 million, over $10 million more than the budget for the new Reed Elementary School, by comparison).  In short, the County has more important needs and priorities.”

Construction on the new aquatics center could begin as early as July 2018 and is expected to wrap up by early 2021.

The project, as approved, will also include “development of 10.5 acres of the park, including environmental remediation, continuation of the Esplanade, public gathering areas and casual use space, one or more rain gardens, parking and other associated infrastructure.”

Vihstadt’s full statement about his “no” vote, after the jump.

After a great deal of consideration, I plan to vote No on the Manager’s recommendation to award a contract for construction of the new Long Bridge Park Olympic aquatics and fitness center.

Since the original plan was halted in 2014 due to massive cost overruns, this project has been scaled back in price and scope. The procurement process has been reformed. The voters approved funding in two park bond issues–in 2004 and 2012–though no specific project price tag was referenced. In one of the bonds, the phrase “aquatics and fitness center” is not even mentioned.   Who can vote against “local parks and recreation”? Yet, times and circumstances change, and Arlington must adapt.

With an uncertain economic outlook and in the face of so many competing priorities, from schools to Metro, and more, I cannot in good conscience support moving forward with this $60 million project as proposed.

If we were considering a more modest, truly community-only pool, I would be open to it.  But that’s not this proposal.

What are my concerns?

First, I am mindful that the aquatics community and many others have been looking forward to this project for a long time. The community engagement process has spanned many years. But, while there may have been a time when we could have afforded this project with relative ease, this is no longer the case.

With schools still growing at the rough equivalent of a new elementary school each year, and our essential but ailing Metro system desperate for more funding, Arlington raised the property tax rate by 1.5 cents this spring. The pressure will be intense to raise property taxes again next year. Rising assessments alone will mean that homeowners will pay hundreds of dollars more per year just for a level services, maintenance-of-effort budget.

And the prospect of federal tax reform and budget cutbacks from Washington adds even more uncertainty. It is simply not fiscally prudent to ask Arlington’s taxpayers to take on this new and costly capital project (at $60 million, over $10 million more than the budget for the new Reed Elementary School, by comparison). In short, the County has more important needs and priorities.

Second, the Manager projects annual net operating costs after revenue of something north of $1.1 million per year. This is a highly speculative, yet consequential figure, before any real numbers have been run.

Our effort to approach nearby Alexandria for an operational partnership was rebuffed  Just months later, Alexandria opted not to go forward with an upgrade and expansion of their own swimming complex due to rising costs. The County Manager’s aggressive efforts to secure partnerships with area colleges and universities came up dry. And attempts to broker sponsorships and naming rights with the private sector have yielded nothing.

Meanwhile, St. James, a major private investment group, has already broken ground for a giant multi-activity athletic and sports complex just down the road in Springfield, including an Olympic-sized pool and diving tower. It will open before Long Bridge. How will that impact the County’s projected annual operating subsidy? There are many unanswered questions.

Finally, the Manager has confirmed that the Board could direct the reprogramming of approved bond monies to other park and recreation priorities such as land acquisition and capital improvements to any number of our 167 parks and 97 athletic fields across Arlington. The County could also help fund a pool at a new South Arlington high school that we are likely to need.

A beneficial byproduct of this would be to help hold down County debt service costs for our bonded indebtedness, which are already rising perilously close to our 10% limit. We know that the 2018 Schools Bond and Metro Bond will be sizable.

Let’s move forward with the build-out of the natural areas of Long Bridge Park itself, but the right priority is to reprogram the Olympic pool and fitness center funds in a more equitable and broad-based fashion.

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