Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The weeping-and-wailing budget season has enveloped Arlington. And though the Columbia Pike trolley and travails of the Artisphere draw much commentary, smaller line items spark debate that drives home at least three observations:

Many citizens are suspicious of the county board’s agenda; much commentary abounds with misinformation; and spending is more fun than cutting.

Take the Gulf Branch Nature Center, near Chain Bridge. The county manager’s surprise plans for cutting $9.3 million in social spending includes a proposal to cut the center’s weekly schedule by six hours. In a letter to the Sun-Gazette, Diana Wahl suggested that this “effort is designed to curtail the number of visitors to the center, creating a justification for an attempt in the near future to close the nature center entirely.”

The plot to shutter Gulf Branch is part of a larger scheme, according to the blog Arlington Yupette. A contributor wrote that a recent county staff retreat at WETA was a step toward the perdition of selling off “excess” county properties–sports facilities and libraries in addition to two nature centers. The blog published figures on related property values and upkeep expenses from a county summary.

I bow to few in my personal attachment to the Gulf Branch Nature Center. I retreat there for contemplative walks. Before the center opened in 1966, it was a private home to which I delivered The Washington Post. As a teen, I passed hours there watching underage classmates smoke. I’ve written on its link to Polish-American Hollywood star Pola Negri, who had affairs with Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin before retreating there in the 1930s.

A Washington attorney I know, Marshall Meyers, lived in the home that is now Gulf Branch when he was a child, from 1938-1942, and has photos to prove it. “The center is such a part of the county, to have it closed or even mothballed, you would lose momentum that would be difficult to being back,” he says.

Susan Kalish, director of marketing and communications for the Parks and Recreation Department, notes that the proposed budget would reduce center operating hours from 39 to 33 hours per week, which would curb some programs. “If this is accepted, we will work with the community and schools to see where the hours will be adjusted.”

As for the alleged plans for a sell-off, Assistant County Manager Diana Sun exclaimed in an e-mail, “This is how rumors get started!” She said the meeting at WETA was an “opportunity for board members and senior staff to get together to have some high-level, strategic discussions. The point was to get OUT of the day-to-day grind … OUT of the budget cycle, and have some good discussions about how we go about making difficult decisions. NO SPECIFIC BUDGET CUTS were discussed. NO decisions made. NO DISCUSSIONS about FY14 Proposed Budget. NO proposals on cutting anything.”

Though the drama is still unfolding, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If cuts materialize in nature center hours and other small Arlington quality-of-life endeavors, I’d say they will be reluctant—and temporary.

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Cultured readers sent additions to my recent list of Arlington musical notables: The late bluegrass giant John Duffey of the Seldom Scene; and SOJA, also known as Soldiers of Jah Army, a reggae band founded in 1997 that records on the Innerloop label.