0
Votes

All-City Sports Facility--Needed or Not?

Citizens question council's procedure on public input.

As if emotions weren't running high enough in Alexandria over the tax and spend issue of real estate revenue streams versus budget line items, along comes the first public airing of a potential "All-City Sports Facility" carrying an estimated price tag of $16 million.

Packed into a Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center meeting room last Thursday evening were a host of supporters in favor of the new facility and some dissenters who questioned not only the need for the facility but also its duplicate elements already planned for the new T.C. Williams High School.

"Based on City Council's action on March 22 and the 5-Year Plan for T.C. Williams Athletics dated March 15, the City of Alexandria seems bound and determined to build two high school style sports stadiums during the next several years," said Alexandria resident John H. Eisenhower.

"In my opinion we can do this better and cheaper. Why don't we optimize each of these facilities to reflect the needs of the groups that will use them as well as the environment in which each is located," he asked the Alexandria Park and Recreation Commission conducting the public hearing.

Citing a perceived competition between the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs (RP&CA) and Alexandria City Public Schools, Eisenhower said, "The two sports stadiums currently proposed [All-City and T.C.Williams] will be very similar... [so] let's set aside jurisdictional considerations ... and optimize each ... for the users and the general public."

PRIOR TO OPENING the session to public speakers, Commission Chair Judy Guse-Noritake, had Earth Tech, Inc., consultants retained by the recreation department, make a powerpoint presentation detailing the facilities anticipated for the new venue at Hensley Park, which was recommended over three other possible sites.

"Among the goals was to have a facility that could accommodate night football and have multi-use fields," said Rob Prunty, an Earth Tech principal. "We were also told to look into the possibility of an indoor roller rink. A facility to accommodate the most number of uses."

According to Prunty, other elements of the facility were to include:

* Multi-use field/stadium with bleachers capable of seating up to 4,000 spectators

* A 400-meter eight-lane competitive track and field event area

* Ball fields with bleacher seating for 125 to 200 each

* Facility buildings to include men's and women's locker rooms, public restrooms, concessions, a ticket office, and state-of-the-art press facilities

* 14,000 sq.ft. indoor roller rink/multi-use facility

* Paved parking spaces ranging from 103 to 472 depending on final facility construction

"Originally there were four sites considered. We decided that the best fit, for the most number of elements, was Hensley Park," Prunty said. Other sites considered were: Roth/Witter Property, off Telegraph Road; Potomac Yard/Simpson Fields; and Four Mile Run Park.

The city-owned 12.4 acre Joseph Hensley Park is an existing lighted sports facility located at the southern edge of the city. It is bounded by Eisenhower Avenue, WMATA and CSX railroad to the north, Clearmont Avenue to the west, Capital Beltway to the south and Cameron Run Creek to the east. The new facility would stretch from the Beltway's Eisenhower Connector to Cameron Run Creek.

Earth Tech's Feasibility Study Report, dated March 11, led off with the statement, "The City of Alexandria has determined the need for a state-of-the-art lighted multi-use sports complex to provide an appropriate venue for high school athletics, including night football as well as other competitive and recreational sporting events ...."

It also stated, "This effort was carried out together with a locally formed group of interested citizens — Alexandrians for An All-City Sports Facility (AACSF)." These two statements fueled the contention of some that City Council, in conjunction with AACSF, had omitted the step of seeking input from the general public as to whether or not such a facility was needed or desired.

"I am representing AAACSF, Alexandrians Against an All-City Sports Facility," said Carolyn Merck, past president, Old Town Civic Association. "I am against a lighted stadium at Hensley Park or anywhere else in Alexandria," she said.

"In my opinion it was premature for the council to request a feasibility study on location of a facility before holding a public hearing and debate on whether we need another stadium; it is premature for this commission to be holding this hearing on that study of alternative locations before a public hearing ...," Merck said.

"Unless you have been on safari recently, you have heard the cries of distress regarding city real estate taxes, the very taxes that so many are stretched to pay to support, in large part, the huge new high school that includes astonishingly extensive athletic facilities," she said.

"How can anyone in their right mind think it is worth $16 million of anybody's money just to have night high school football? I urge you to get your heads out of the clouds and your hands off other people's wallets and drop this whole project," Merck said.

FOLLOWING MERCK to the podium was former Alexandria Mayor and recently named T.C. Williams Athletic Director Kerry Donely. "This is not a debate about Friday night football. This is about having a facility we can be proud of," Donely said.

"If we make this kind of investment in an All-City Sports Facility it makes a statement to a larger community," Donley said. He urged the commission to compete with Arlington and Fairfax counties.

"I urge you to weigh the testimony before you tonight, but then make the decision to report favorably for such a facility," he said.

In his dismissal of night football being the primary motivator behind the proposed facility, Donley failed to note that in a memorandum dated March 17 to Mayor William D. Euille and City Council, City Manager James K. Hartman stated the following:

"In the Summer of 2003, a group of Alexandria citizens formed a group called Alexandrians For An All-City Sports Facility to address the possibility of building a substantial sports facility that could return night time football to T.C. Williams High School, and the city." Donley was mayor at that time.

"At the Dec. 13, 2003, City Council legislative meeting, council requested that staff work with the newly formed group (AACSF) ... to conduct a preliminary investigation of the potential viability of an All-City Sports Facility ...," according to Hartman's memo. Donley left office at the end of 2003.

One of the founders of AACSF, A. Melvin Miller, chair, Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority and past School Board member said, "I definitely support this facility. But, nobody is saying this is going to solve all the problems."

Following his testimony Miller noted, "Over the years we have lost fields while interest in sports has increased. Years ago everybody played either football or baseball. Now we have lacrosse and hockey and others."

He insisted, "T.C. Williams has never had all the fields it's needed. We also used to have night fields with lights. We had three high schools at one time and two of those had athletic fields with lights. And, we won't be able to have a standard track at the new T.C.Williams facility due to space. It will only be six lanes not eight." The proposed track at Hensley is designed for eight lanes.

The new athletic field at T.C.Williams will not have lights due to infringement upon nearby neighborhoods. But, as Merck stated in her testimony, "I grew up in a town with Saturday afternoon football, and it was always a special and fun day. Our three children attended T.C. Williams High School and never felt the least deprived when they spent beautiful autumn afternoons with their friends at the high School stadium ...."

At its April 13, 2004, meeting, one year and seven days prior to Thursday night's meeting, "Council authorized staff to conduct a Feasibility Study of an All-City Sports Facility to validate the finding of the original report," according to Hartman's memo.

That was buttressed by Thursday's meeting announcement from the city public information office which stated, "The public meeting will seek public input on programming and construction of a sports facility at Hensley Park ...." As Eisenhower stated in his opening remarks, the city seems "bound and determined to build two high school style sports stadiums ...."

As for the $16 million cost, Hartman has recommended a "phased approach" thereby enabling the city "to budget the project over several years." Of the estimated total, the city is calculating a total input of only $5 million in public funds. The remaining $11 million is dependent upon a fundraising effort geared to the private sector.

However, the $16 million does not include the roller rink/multi use building, according to the Feasibility Study. That would add an addition $3.6 million or a grand total approaching $20 million.

Hartman has anticipated fiscal year 2006 "to be a fundraising year, so that a significant amount of private funds could be pledged or in hand before construction would begin in FY 2007. Additional features of the ... facility would be funded in later years through additional city or private sources, to be determined," he wrote in his memo.

However, what happens if that private capital does not materialize, Merck asked. As she stated before the commission, "The city will commit $5 million in taxpayer money to the project in 2006-2007, commence the work, with no idea where the balance of funds will come from, a balance that will be at least $10 million. Suppose, just suppose, the 'private' funds to cover the balance do not materialize when needed," she said.

EISENHOWER SUGGESTED an approach he claimed would be beneficial to all factions. It would also give the city "the finest stadium and field in Northern Virginia" which could be marketed "to regional organizations, sell naming rights, develop partnerships with minor league professional teams" and not duplicate expenditures or facilities, he maintained. It included:

* "A first-class track and field facility and such other fields that will fit around T.C. Williams."

* "A first-class full size multi-purpose Field Turf playing field at Hensley Park."

* Redesign Hensley's public facilities.

* Solve Hensley's parking issues.

However, in the final analysis, Eisenhower conceded, "The political issue is whether we should be doing this at all." The commission is expected to discuss the consultant report and public comments at a May 19 meeting and make a recommendation to Council in late May or June, according to Janet Barnett, recreation department's deputy director.