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Retiring McLean Community Center (MCC) executive director George Sachs will spend his final months on the job briefing his successor and helping the facility weather the pandemic.
“What’s weighing heavily on me is getting back to in-person programming and socializing,” he told the Sun Gazette Jan. 6. “We’re here to provide social experiences. The light at the end of the tunnel is still very dim, but we know we’ll eventually get through.”
The center’s Governing Board is undertaking a national search to find Sachs’ successor and aims to have the new hire in place by March. Sachs, who will turn 70 on April 25 and retire on May 7, said the overlapping tenure with his successor will allow him to pass on acquired knowledge.
Sachs will move to Palm Coast, Fla., and spend his retirement enjoying the kind of park-and-recreation services he has spent 47 years providing others. In addition to working out at fitness centers, he plans to swim and play golf, pickleball and croquet.
An Arlington native, Sachs in his youth had an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was disqualified because of a bad knee. Instead, he attended Old Dominion University on a full-ride gymnastics scholarship. His principal events were the rings, parallel bars and pommel horse.
Sachs earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1974 and had been looking for work in that field, but instead became a recreation specialist with the Fairfax County Department of Recreation (now Neighborhood and Community Services). He switched to the Fairfax County Park Authority three years later and helped open the recreation center at Wakefield Park, now called the Audrey Moore RECenter.
George Mason University hired Sachs in 1982 to manage its recreation and sports facilities and to open the new Fieldhouse Sports Complex. During his tenure at Mason, Sachs became an adjunct professor and taught classes for the university’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Leisure Services curriculum.
Sachs in 1991 became MCC’s deputy under then-executive director Page Shelp. Seeing little chance to advance to the top spot, Sachs in 1995 moved to South Carolina and with a partner purchased and reopened a formerly defunct fitness center.
He later owned and operated five LifeQuest Swim & Fitness facilities, but after weathering the tough 2008 recession and seeing the fitness centers’ prices undercut by those of larger competitors and local-government recreation facilities, Sachs returned to MCC in 2009 and became director of its youth and intergenerational programs. The job also involved running the Old Firehouse Teen Center.
MCC underwent several leadership changes after Shelp, who died late last year, retired in 1999. Bill Bersie, who died in 2019, led the center for six years after Shelp’s departure and this was followed by back-to-back two-year leadership stints by Michael Cadwallader and Julie Rasmussen.
Sachs became MCC’s acting executive director in April 2010 and the Governing Board that July made him the official successor.
The center, which now has 28 full-time employers and some part-time workers, has an annual operating budget of $6 million, Sachs said. About $5 million of that amount derives from revenues collected from residents in the surrounding small tax district and the remainder comes from user fees and other charges, he said.
Sachs counts the center’s $8 million renovation and expansion, which took five years, as the greatest accomplishment of his tenure. The Governing Board previously had accumulated a significant financial surplus, which some critics had insisted be put to good use.
The renovated center, which reopened in December 2018, opened up the facility’s lobby, allowed visitors to see new activity areas on the other side of the now-enclosed courtyard and provided an aerobics studio. The upgrades also consolidated the center’s administrative areas, providing a better work environment for staff members who previously had been operating out of makeshift locations throughout the building, he said.
Like the rest of the world, Sachs has spent the last 10 months responding to the pandemic. MCC began offering “virtual” programming instead of in-person classes and performances, and undertook extensive sanitation measures to ensure the facility remained a healthy environment for staff and patrons. Sachs said he was proud of how flexible and innovative the center’s staff members were in meeting the pandemic’s challenges.
Sachs urged his future successor to listen to, support and encourage the center’s staff members. One key challenge maintaining solid relationships with the center’s 11 Governing Board members, Sachs said. Three adult board members and both youth members rotate out each year, so new members will need to be brought up to speed, he said.
“The task of being able to adjust to new faces and ideas on the Governing Board requires a good listener and mediator, someone who can explain things well,” Sachs said. “Also, you need to support the center’s professional staff. They enjoy what they do and it shows in the outcomes of the programs we’re providing.”
Governing Board member Carole Herrick lauded Sachs’ service.
“George has done a remarkable job in maintaining the community center as the core and community spirit of McLean,” she said.
Lori Carbonneau, executive director of the McLean Project for the Arts, said Sachs is an open-door leader who has fostered community connections during the pandemic, and brought his talents to bear with other local groups, as well.
“George not only cares deeply about his responsibilities as a community-builder, but also cares for his MCC colleagues,” she said. “2020 provided ample opportunity for taking care of his people and their work environment.”
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said Sachs had led MCC through some tough challenges.
“I especially appreciated his creative and successful efforts to provide services to McLean residents even while the facility was closed for construction,” Foust said.
Foust also lauded Sachs for providing space at the Old Firehouse Teen Center for the Specially Adapted Resource Clubs (SPARC), which serves program for adults with disabilities.
Governing Board chairman Suzanne Le Menestrel also praised Sachs’ efforts during the center’s renovation and his creative, flexible leadership during the pandemic.
“As a partner to the Governing Board, I appreciate George’s diplomatic, calm, patient and responsive approach and his receptivity to new ideas,” she said.
“His guidance and patience with whatever challenge needed resolution and his dedication to McLean’s community center will be missed,” agreed former Governing Board member Merrily Pierce.