Must Arlington, to remain a self-respecting suburb, add a state-of-the-art swimming complex to its existing communal attractions?
Voters on Nov. 6 will weigh in on a parks and recreation bond to the tune of $50,553,000. A key component is investment in design and construction of the Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health and Fitness Facility. Not all Arlingtonians are ready to dive in.
“Why can’t we afford a ‘world-class’ $72+ million swimming palace?” shouted a full-page ad in the Sun-Gazette crafted by a group called Concerned Arlington County Homeowners. It listed reasons including new pressure for tax hikes, neglected roads, ballooning school enrollment, vague county budget numbers and “waning public support for high-priced vanity projects like the $250 million Columbia Pike trolley and the $17 million Artisphere.”
My friend Terry Showman, a homebuilder, blasted the project at a recent forum as a white elephant. “Since when did liberal progressive democratic politics in Arlington take up the cause of a $73 million dollar pool?” he asked me, complaining of cost creep. “The bourgeois Democrats act with an attitude of government entitlement to the taxpayers to provide an endless supply of money.”
The park at the mouth of Crystal City named for historic Long Bridge, with spanking new soccer fields, was dedicated last November. Rescued from idle brownfields, it is billed as “Arlington’s signature destination” in a flyer I got at last August’s county fair. An artist’s rendering shows the swooping glass structure that would house a 50-meter-by-25-yard competition pool, a 10-meter diving platform, a teaching pool, a family leisure pool, a therapy pool, space for individual and group fitness programs, classrooms and a party room alongside parking and an outdoor park with public art.
The attraction targets all age groups, particularly young kids and senior citizens for whom the three high school pools are insufficient.
The project got a boost in July when a group called Friends of Long Bridge Park delivered 2,450 signatures favoring the pools. Tobin Smith, former chair of the Park and Recreation Commission, said more than 100 public meetings and reviews have been devoted to the effort. He said it would “stand out” over other public and private pools and help the county “recover costs through market-level fees.”
A celebrity supporter in the person of Arlington native Tom Dolan, winner of two Olympic Gold Medals in swimming, wrote the county board saying the community “has been waiting a long time for a facility of this magnitude.”
County Board member Jay Fisette told me the aquatic center matches those in nearby areas and caps a 20-year “remarkable transformation” of the site. “The cost has risen since 2004, as have all capital projects, due to factors including the dramatic increase in construction costs after 2005 and inflationary escalations calculated through 2015,” he said. “Several million in enhanced energy systems were redesigned into the facility to meet county energy goals that will add cost up-front but save $250,000 per year in operating costs.” The county’s AAA bond rating is not threatened because the project is within self-imposed county guidelines, he added.
Of the four referenda on the ballot, the parks bond has drawn the most opposition, notably from the Republican Committee and the Green Party. As Arlington urbanizes, it’s no surprise that many taxpayers, accustomed to quieter residential enclaves, are alarmed by such go-go public ambition.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]