Even as construction on the long-awaited-but-not-without-controversy Long Bridge Park Aquatics Center gets under way, the question of how much it will cost to swim there – and how much Arlington taxpayers will need to subsidize operations – remains an open issue.
As part of the decision-making process, some local residents will be receiving mailed-out surveys to gauge their interest in the Crystal City swim complex, and how they think the revenue stream should be structured.
ETC Institute, which is conducting the survey for the Arlington government, will be mailing out the surveys in August and reporting back with results in September, said Susan Kalish, a spokesman for the Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation.
A working group set up by the county government to advise on pricing the facility is expected to provide its recommendations to county officials early in 2019, Kalish said.
The working group empaneled to look at fees for use of the aquatics center has been meeting sporadically since the spring. (Background on the effort is found at https://projects.arlingtonva.us/long-bridge-park-fees-work-group/.)
ETC Institute has worked with the Arlington government since 2002. The firm aims to collect 800 valid responses, which it says would give a 95-percent confidence level and margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
The aquatics center is slated to open in mid-2020. Last year, county staff estimated that first-year operating revenues would be about $3.19 million and expenses would be $4.25 million, leaving a gap of just over $1 million to be filled by taxpayers.
If that projection plays out, the financial prospects of the facility will be significantly improved from earlier iterations, which estimated the need for an annual subsidy ranging from $1.9 million to $3.8 million.
(Those figures represent only operating costs, and do not take into account the cost of paying off construction bonds, which could add an average $2.5 million to $3 million in annual expenses – more in the early years of the facility – for county taxpayers.)
Plans for a major pool complex as a centerpiece of Long Bridge Park in Crystal City long have been in the works, but the project has seen more unforeseen plot twists than a cheap detective novel.
Arlington voters by a 76-percent majority in 2004 approved a park bond that, they were told at the time, included enough funding to cover the entire cost of the Long Bridge Park project, including an aquatics facility.
But, after a case of “mission creep” that saw the proposal balloon in scope and cost, county leaders in 2012 had to seek additional funding through another park bond, at a time when public discontent over what critics derided as gold-plated “vanity” projects in Arlington was beginning to gather steam.
Voters in November 2012 gave the request for more cash the green light, but the margin (63-percent support) was almost 20 percentage points lower than several other bond packages on the same ballot.
That tepid result was a foreshadowing of a nascent voter revolution that two years later propelled independent John Vihstadt to the County Board and, indirectly, led to the scuttling of two other major projects: the Columbia Pike streetcar, which never got past the planning stage, and the Artisphere arts center, which hemorrhaged money in its few years of operation.
After construction-cost estimates came in significantly higher than expected, then-County Manager Barbara Donnellan put the aquatics-center project on ice. Her successor, Mark Schwartz, resuscitated it but promised the size would be trimmed and amenities be more off-the-rack and less designer-label.
Arlington County Board members last November voted 4-1 in support of a design of the pool complex. The $54.7 million project cost – about $30 million less than the earlier incarnation – will include not just the aquatics/fitness center, but also an extension of Long Bridge Park’s esplanade, rain gardens, public art and parking.
The fact that Arlington leaders held a ground-breaking ceremony for the pool complex in late June without having firm operational-cost figures in hand is something that flummoxes Wayne Kubicki, a veteran civic activist who early on warned about the budget-busting nature of this project.
Kubicki voiced concern that the County Board’s “charge” to the group working on a plan for fees does not give them a revenue target to shoot for.
“One would have hoped that the county might have learned some lessons from the financial mess it created at Artisphere,” he said. “Let’s hope the results at the aquatics center are better.”