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Officials Concede

Admitting a City Council-mandated policy in recent years of requiring fees for youth and young adults at the Falls Church Community Center gym has resulted in a precipitous drop off in use, members of the Falls Church Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee sought the Council’s OK, at its work session Tuesday, to drop the policy.

Not requiring a formal vote, but only nods of ascent, the policy change went into effect yesterday, dropping any fee charges to youths 18 and under. A $3 charge for use will still be charged to non-resident adults, 19 and up.

According to Howard Herman, the City’s veteran general manager of Community Services, the fee policy has had a backfire effect on the very city residents it was designed to benefit. This is according to a three-year survey of the impact of the fee policy since its implementation.

Between Jan. 1, 2005 and this month, there was a 30% drop in use of the gym by city youth, even though it was available to them for free. The drop of non-resident youth was 25%, due to the $2 fee they had to pay.

Adult use, upon implementation of a $3 fee, also declined dramatically.

Danny Schlitt, of the City’s Department of Recreation and Parks, said that the drop off among city youth can be attributed to the fact that they “run” after school and on weekends in groups that include non-resident youth. Since their non-resident friends have had to pay, they decide as a group to avoid the Community Center altogether.

“The fees discourage the kids,” Schlitt said. “We want to recover the open, welcoming attitudes we had there in the past.”

As far as the revenue from three years of fee collection, Schlitt reported it was a meager $12,000, or $11 a day, indicating the miniscule level of use.

The issue of user fees for the Community Center gym was a contentious one, predating the renovation of the Center that began in March 2000 and kept it closed until June 2001.

The sharp drop off in use as a result of the fee policy starting in 2005 fulfilled the predictions of many of the policy’s opponents. They decried a policy that would have the effect of restricting  access to young people who need positive environments for recreation during after school and weekend hours.

This also applied to young adults, they argued, especially among lower income groups. Those in the 19-25 age range also need well-supervised recreational outlets.

But some on the City Council, led by former Mayor Dan Gardner, were adamant that a policy discriminating between resident youth and adults and fee-paying “outsiders,” was only fair to the City residents.

The resulting diminished level of use was a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s. First built in 1968 with an indestructible mixed wood chip and concrete floor, the “open gym” periods at the Community Center became a legend throughout the region, attracting scores of youth and young adults during afternoons, evenings and weekends.

The burgeoning attendance caused the Recreation Department to limit basketball games to half-court, 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 games so that at least two games could be played simultaneously. During some periods of higher turnout, two center-court games were flanked by up to four side-basket games, all happening at the same time.

Informal court rules for “picking up” teams of three or four players were quickly observed by all new comers, allowing a rotation system that permitted a constant flow of new people onto the court.

Sensitive to the tendency of the young adults to “hog” the court from younger players, Rec Department officials soon designated after school hours and late nights on Fridays and Saturdays, to only those 18 and under.

Still, many younger players, including many from Falls Church, said they enjoyed and benefited from playing with older younger adults in the informal games. When the George Mason High School boys basketball teams made it to the State Final Four in March 2001, the two top stars both told regional newspapers that they honed their skills playing hours and hours of “pick-up games” at the Community Center.

The end to this “Golden Age” of maximum gym use came when, after years of wrangling, delay and downsizing, the City Council finally moved to renovate the Center, shutting it down in March 2000 for 15 months. An original Advisory Committee recommendation for a commensurate expansion, to include a second full gym and a swimming pool, were abandoned under pressure from a tiny entourage of noisy residential neighbors.

When the Community Center reopened in June 2001, with virtually no expansion to the basketball court area and a hardwood floor requiring more maintenance, most of those who’d been playing there before for up to a decade had migrated elsewhere, and did not return.

Despite the sharp drop-off in use that the 14-month closure of the Center caused, the pressures to adopt a user fee policy continued to build until finally adopted in 2004.