Arlington government officials appear outwardly confident they will be able to forge partnerships and attract sponsors to help cover the cost of the resurrected Long Bridge Park aquatics center.
But if those gobs of cash materialize, what will they be used for: to add amenities to a project that has been significantly stripped down from original plans, or to further cut the cost to taxpayers?
On that issue, staff remain mum.
County Manager Mark Schwartz on July 12 confirmed his intent to move forward with the Crystal City project without needing additional taxpayer funding beyond that already available. Speaking to County Board members, Schwartz said efforts remain ongoing at finding businesses and institutions of higher education willing to partner on the project.
“We are still working diligently on sponsorships and partnerships,” he said, pointing to a deadline of later this year to ink any deals, since that’s when design work for the project is slated to move forward.
Schwartz suggested that current negotiations, with parties he did not name, could go either way. He termed them “fragile” but “ongoing.”
In April, Schwartz unveiled a proposed 73,000-square-foot aquatics center, down from the 116,000-square-foot project that had been on hold after estimated construction and operating costs ballooned out of control.
County staff believe the project, as now envisioned, could be built for $40 million to $44 million, with funds available from park bonds approved by voters in 2004 and 2012.
Schwartz’s retooled proposal also includes a number of potential extras that would add to its overall budget. At a County Board work session, one board member – John Vihstadt – said while he supports going after partners, he would like to see their financial contributions used to reduce taxpayer cost for the project before considering additions.
The board’s vice chairman, Jay Fisette, countered that nickel-and-diming the facility might diminish its attractiveness to users and potential partners alike. Jane Rudolph, the county government’s parks and recreation director, said efforts are ongoing to continue to find efficiencies where possible.
Arlington leaders long have envisioned the aquatics center as the centerpiece of Long Bridge Park, while opponents lampooned it as another example of the county government’s effort to attain “world-class” status exceeding the bounds of fiscal prudence.
When asked to provide additional funding for the aquatics center in 2012, voters delivered a mixed message: The park bond that includes the funds passed, but its margin of victory (63 percent) was almost 20 percentage points lower than referendums for schools and transportation also on the ballot.
Later, then-County Manager Barbara Donnellan shelved the project after construction costs came in well above expectations. In March 2015 County Board members directed Donnellan’s successor (Schwartz) to revisit the proposal and return with a scaled-back option.