Saturday, May 25, 2013

RCA Raises Questions About RCC Rec Center Proposal

This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published in Reston Patch.

On Monday, at the RCA Board meeting, our primary topic of discussion was one of Reston’s hottest issues: the RCC proposal to construct a new rec center. It’s no surprise that this was one of our most spirited meetings ever. We emerged with a new report that takes a hard look at the questions we need to answer before we decide whether and how to proceed with a rec center, a resolution calling for much more community input in the process, and a proposal for achieving that input.

Our report, The Reston Recreation Center Initiative: Unanswered Questions on Need, Facilities, Location, Financing, and Decision Making, was drafted by our stellar analyst Terry Maynard. The paper spotlights issues that haven’t been resolved yet in the rec center proposal, and raises questions for further exploration. These questions include:

Community Needs: If you’re familiar with RCC’s long waiting lists for popular programs (especially in aquatics) and the heavy usage of its facilities, the need for a new facility may seem like a no-brainer, particularly with the new residents coming with the Metro. But those new residents mean that Reston will have other needs too.

We’ll need new schools. We’ll need updated and expanded public facilities, such as a new library. We’ll need to maintain RA’s aging infrastructure, and likely provide new amenities as well. And as RCA has stated repeatedly, we’ll need major transportation improvements to keep Reston moving and preserve our quality of life.

Unfortunately, we can’t afford to build everything we might want. Given that, where does a new rec center fall in our list of priorities? Should public funding be used to meet the demand for new indoor recreation space, or will private recreation and fitness providers be sufficient?

The updated market survey that’s due on June 3rd should provide insight on the second question. But the first question can only be answered through a community-wide discussion of priorities.

Facilities and Services: If we do build a rec center, what should be in it? The centerpiece of the rec center proposal is an indoor pool. Should it be a 25-yard pool (like the one RCC has currently), or a 50-meter pool? Should a leisure pool or a therapy pool also be included? What about weight rooms or gymasiums? What about meeting rooms? Should we include features targeted at seniors (such as reading rooms) and youth (such as a game room?

In general, we believe that the new rec center, if it’s built, should be as comprehensive as we can make it. Whatever we build will need to meet our community’s needs for decades to come. We should be as forward-looking as possible in thinking about future demand. Hopefully, the updated market survey can provide some guidance here as well.

Location: This has been the most contentious issue so far, with many speakers at the public hearings opposing the idea of building at Baron Cameron Park, which has been discussed. RCC says that they have made no decisions on the location, but the Baron Cameron option is the only one presented so far. According to RCC representatives at our Monday meeting, they have not conducted a systematic study of alternative locations.

Our paper presented options that could be plausible alternatives: at Tall Oaks, on FCPA land near the North County Government Center, at Isaac Newton Square, and in the southwest corner of Lake Fairfax Park. Surely there are others. Maybe some won’t prove to be feasible, but the only way to know is to fully evaluate the options. Our paper also proposes criteria for evaluating potential sites.

Financing: Currently, RCC proposes to build the facility using their existing Small Tax District #5. Most other public recreation centers in Fairfax County, however, were built and funded using the County-wide real estate tax, and maintained by the Park Authority.

One possibility would be to lobby the County to build the rec center, as they have done elsewhere. But that would mean waiting at least a decade – and maybe more – before County capital funds became available. Do we want to wait that long, or is this a high enough priority that we in Reston should fund it ourselves?

Other factors may come into play. For instance, how many Restonians vs. non-Restonians are expected to use the rec center? If it will be used predominantly by non-Restonians, perhaps County funding makes more sense. If we do use Small District 5, would adding the facility require raising the current tax rate? The expected influx of new residents and businesses will provide more revenue within the current rate, but will the growth be enough to offset the costs?

The updated market survey should provide help here as well. In addition to providing updated estimates of how much the rec center might cost, it will also give us an idea of how much of the center’s operating budget might need to be subsidized by Reston taxpayers.

Decision Process: If Small Tax District #5 is to be used to fund the rec center, the RCC Board will make the decision to proceed or not. And ultimately, the citizens of Reston will have the final say, as they would vote on the rec center bond referendum.

But before we reach that point, much more community input is needed, to answer the questions described above and more. I give RCC credit for soliciting public input earlier in the process compared to the Brown’s Chapel proposal in 2009, and they’ve done quite a bit of preliminary research to get us to this point. But the issues we’ve discussed above impact all of Reston, and we need a community-wide conversation. Involving the entire community in the discussion also makes it more likely that the bond referendum, if one occurs, would pass.

How do we hold that community-wide conversation? Our recommendation is for a panel with representatives from RCC, RCA, and the Reston Association to review the options (including the questions asked above), take in the full breadth of community opinion, and recommend a proposal that would provide the best possible outcome for Reston. At the meeting, Terry cited the example of Aurora, Illinois, which convened a task force with a broad cross-section of community representatives working in concert to generate a proposal for its rec center. I like that model of widespread participation.

Whatever model we choose, we should ensure that the whole community is represented in the discussion, and that there are multiple opportunities for them to speak and be heard on this issue. A series of community forums throughout Reston would be a good way to gather this input.

If you’d like to know more about our recommendations, you can read our report in full here. And rest assured that we at RCA are far from done talking about this; we’re going to continue studying the issue, debating it, and pushing for a process that generates the best outcome for the community.

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