Aquatics center design selected

A design by Coakley & Williams Construction in late 2017 was selected for the Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center.

Fees ranging from $9 for a one-day entrance to $630 for an annual pass have been proposed for the future Long Bridge Park aquatics and fitness center. But the fee schedule, developed by a task force set up by county leaders, leaves undetermined, for now, how much of a subsidy taxpayers will need to provide for the Crystal City facility’s operation.

The “fee working group” of the Long Bridge Park Advisory Committee has submitted its proposals, which in addition to specific price points also recommends surcharges of between 25 percent and 30 percent for non-residents, and supports providing users of the Long Bridge Park facility reciprocal access to other county-government fitness facilities but not, at least for the present, to Arlington Public Schools’ three indoor pools.

The $70.7 million Long Bridge Park complex currently is under construction, with opening slated for late 2020 or early 2021. It will be up to County Board members to decide final user fees as part of its annual budget deliberations.

The 13-member working group, headed by Paul Holland of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, met throughout 2018 and looked at fees at similar facilities across the Washington region. Surveys of residents and businesses also were conducted in an effort to determine pricing sweet spots.

The proposal calls for daily passes of $9 or $11.25 for adults, $5 or $7.50 for seniors and $5 or $6.25 for children, depending on whether they are Arlington residents or not. A daily pass for families would be $25/$32.50.

Multi-visit, six-month and annual passes also are priced out in the report, as is a lower-cost “matinee” entrance fee designed to draw the public during slow times, such as weekday middays and weekend evenings.

The proposed $650 annual fee is considerably higher than the $393-per-year fee charged county residents for using Arlington Public Schools’ pools, although the Long Bridge Park facility will include fitness facilities that are not included in APS pool memberships. Residents would have to visit six times per month or more, on average, throughout the year to recoup the cost of the pass.

After discussing the matter “at length,” working-group members split on the idea of giving non-residents who work in Arlington the same discounted rates as residents. But they did urge consideration of corporate and hotel memberships as a way to draw from the surrounding Crystal City area.

That the working group had been directed by leadership of the county government to recommend fees without looking at the bigger picture of revenues and expenses of the facility still strikes fiscal watchdog Wayne Kubicki as “quite odd.”

“There was no attempt to project what the proposed fees would translate to in terms of gross revenue and facility usage,” Kubicki said. “Even now, with construction having started, the county seems to still be flying mostly blind on how big the facility’s operating subsidy will be.”

(Kubicki said the fault did not lie with the working group, as it followed its directive from county leaders, but with the directives themselves.)

It’s unlikely fees charged for use of the Long Bridge Park facility will ever fully cover the cost of operations, but how much the subsidy will need to be remains an open question.

There are some guesstimates: When the construction contract was inked in late 2017, county staff projected that the first-year operating cost of $4.25 million would be at least $1 million higher than projected revenues. The cost of paying off construction bonds would push the deficit higher.

When will county officials have an updated projection of anticipated revenue and projected costs? They suggest it is just too early to get that far into the weeds.

“Nothing appeared in the presentation about how much revenue the aquatics center is expected to generate because programming for the aquatics center is still to be determined,” said Mary Curtius, a county spokesman, after checking with the Department of Management and Finance.

County officials continue to pin their hopes on the quest, thus far unsuccessful, to find corporate sponsors that will inject cash into the center, perhaps in exchange for naming rights.

“I remain optimistic that we will be successful” in finding partners, County Manager Mark Schwartz told County Board members in late January, though he offered no specifics.

Creation of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center has had a lengthy, and contentious, gestation period.

Arlington voters by a 76-percent majority in 2004 approved a park bond that, they were told at the time, would cover the entire cost of the Long Bridge Park project, including an aquatics facility, fields, an esplanade and parking. But, after a case of “mission creep” that saw the project balloon in scope and cost, county leaders in 2012 had to come back and seek more money through another bond.

Voters that November approved additional funding for the aquatics center, but the margin (63-percent support) was almost 20 percentage points lower than several other bond packages on the ballot.

That lower margin of support was, in retrospect, a tipoff that county voters were tiring of expensive capital-spending projects.

Two years later, in 2014, a voter revolt sent independent John Vihstadt to the County Board – something that triggered the demise of the proposed Columbia Pike Streetcar, shuttering of the Artisphere arts center and downscaling of the Long Bridge Park project.

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