Imagine not having a place nearby to go ice skating. Or no large indoor public pool to swim in. Think about not being able to drive down the street to exercise, take a class or have a party in a specially allocated party room.
Such was the case 25 years ago when the corner of Fort Hunt Road and Belle View Boulevard was an empty field. Before a few visionaries and years of hard work turned that field into a vital part of the Mount Vernon community.
That field became home to the Mount Vernon RECenter and next month, they will celebrate their 25th anniversary.
Warren Cikins remembers it well. As the Mount Vernon Supervisor from 1975 through 1980, he also knows first-hand how close Mount Vernon came to almost not having this wonderful recreation center.
“Everybody told us that nobody would use it,” said Cikins.
Cikins believed in the center from the beginning. He had two young sons and wanted them to have a place to go. “I saw the kids hanging around, drinking and doing drugs—there was nowhere for them to go,” he said.
Providing wholesome recreation for the children of Mount Vernon was part of the agenda on which he ran in a special election for supervisor, held after Herb Harris was elected to Congress. When Cikins took office, the Park Authority had gained voter approval for a $2 million bond referendum to build a recreation center; the citizens of Mount Vernon indicated that they wanted an ice rink.
The problem was that the bond referendum was only for $2 million and the cost of the proposed center with an ice rink mushroomed to $4 million, due to opposition from a private ice rink and high inflation.
Glenn Fatzinger, Cikins’s Park Authority representative, had been the chair of the environmental committee and then was appointed to the Park Authority “to make sure it happened.”
THE CONCEPT OF THE ICE RINK was a bit of stretch, since skating in the South was just becoming popular. But a rink was one facility that the Park Authority didn’t have and the popularity of the U.S. skaters in the Olympics around that time helped to make the rink more feasible.
Cikins turned to Bruce Bolstad, a Mount Vernon resident and long-time ice hockey player, to help get community support. Bolstad had played hockey for years, and organized the Mount Vernon Hockey Club. “I knew we need a pool and an ice rink,” said Bolstad, who organized a large group of dedicated and enthusiastic people who championed the cause.
“Bruce… rallied to this cause and demonstrated that Mount Vernon did indeed strongly want a skating rink,” said Cikins. With the citizen’s approval in hand, Cikins needed to go back to the park authority. He turned to Carl Sell, Park Authority Chairman.
“Everybody told us that we were crazy,” said Sell, but he was still in favor of the project, as was Joe Downs, director of the Park Authority. Fatzinger from the Mount Vernon district and Joe Alexander from the Lee District supported it. Even Fred Crabtree, who was appointed by Martha Pennino, representative in a district with a competing rink, was for it.
They tried to scrape together the extra $2 million for the rink through various means, borrowing from funded projects that were stalled in the planning stage and cutting back plans for the rink to make their budget.
“Among the concessions we made was the abandonment of the expensive brick façade,” Cikins said, “dropping the auxiliary rink which would have been primarily available to figure skaters; and scrubbing from the plan a sizeable community room for regular meetings.”
PARK AUTHORITY members approved the proposal. Then Cikins had to sell it to the Board of Supervisors.
Cikins said that the Board was initially opposed to the rink because they thought that it wouldn’t pay its own way and because they thought that such a facility should be built by private enterprise. Cikins, however, had approached many private companies, but there was no response.
“In 1976, the Board [of Supervisors] voted me down several times. It finally came down to a 5-4 against me. Then in a last ditch effort I scheduled a vote for the end of 1976,” he said.
Sadly, both of his parents died that month, and Cikins was out of town arranging their funerals when the issue came before the Board. In a tribute to his planning, and the support of the community, the Board voted 7-1 to support the RECenter and the rink.
“This was a remarkable vote of confidence in the people of Mount Vernon and their response to the availability of a rink and later a pool (completed by my successor, Sandy Duckworth) and an exercise center and other facilities,” said Cikins.
An opening celebration was held March 10, 1978, but the center opened for business a month earlier. The aquatic complex was added in February 1981, and in 1983, Mount Vernon hosted the South Atlantic Figure Skating Competition.
FOR SEVERAL YEARS, the Capitals held their practice sessions at the rink, and it was recognized as one of the best practice facilities in the NHL.
Over the years, the RECenter has been renovated several times, including the most recent upgrade last year, which included an expanded spa and beach area with aquatic play features in the pool complex.
Contrary to everybody’s expectations, the center started making money right away and they were able to pay all the money back so that it could be used for other projects. “We never could have realized how well it would have worked. I’m very proud and have great memories of what we were able to accomplish,” said Sell.
Trina Taylor, manager of the center, said that the numbers continue to grow. “All areas are up in attendance,” she said, citing an increase of 5,000 in general admission over the last two years.
The number of passes sold has increased by over 15,000. The RECenter has expanded its programs slowly but steadily, Taylor said, and has not had too many wait lists for programs. She would still like to see an auxiliary rink built someday.
Alex Carney has enjoyed working as a seasonal manager at the center for the past three years. “I play a lot of hockey during my lunch breaks and then jump in the hot tub,” he said.
“It’s been great. I still skate,” said Fatzinger, who’s retired and skates during the day.
Cikins said, “The rink was a success form the start and for many, many years I have had the great pride in driving by the facility every day.”
Where & When
The Mount Vernon RECenter will celebrate the 25th anniversary on Saturday, March 15, with a day of fun and excitement from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Cost of admission will be $1.75 for adults; $1 for children; $.85 for seniors. There will be a moon bounce; cake cutting; samples of classes; public skating session; martial arts demonstration; fire and police exhibits; face painting; slap shot; and more. They are located at 2017 Belle View Blvd., call 703-768-3224 for more information.