The city of Alexandria has 48 athletic fields, everything from baseball diamonds to tennis courts. But according to a recent study presented to the City Council earlier this month, they are under-maintained and overused. A report issued by PROS Consulting found that the city’s 48 fields are unable to meet the needs of their 15,000 users.
“The demand for use of fields far exceeds the capacity,” said Leon Younger, president of PROS Consulting. “And the group most underserved is adults.”
Younger’s study recommended that the city establish a phased plan to develop nine new fields and redevelop existing ones. It said the city could get more use out of the fields if it increased maintenance standards, and it suggested that the school system should use synthetic fields at each of its locations. One of the ways the city could encourage maintenance, the study suggested, would be to limit play at the fields by setting up a defined number of games and increasing the cost of the fees to reflect the “true cost” of the service.
“Although this master plan will not be easy to implement, it has the ability to position Alexandria with greatly improved fields and capacity to meet the user’s needs with high quality athletic facilities,” the study concluded.
IN A FIELD-BY-FIELD analysis, the PROS study evaluated the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to all of the city’s fields. Some fields, like the ones at Boothe Park, need virtually no improvement other than better maintenance. Others, like Braddock Field, need a host of improvements such as lighting, parking, fencing, restrooms and storage. In the end, the study found deficiencies with the capital resources as opposed to the operating expenses.
“On the program side, the city does a great job,” said Younger. “The weakness is really in the fields.”
Younger said that part of the problem is an engineering dilemma: Engineering fields to incorporate the proper soil composition and drainage systems is costly but it saves money on maintenance costs. So the city can either choose to make smaller investments now or larger costs later. The study reported that the city has 16 engineered fields and 32 non-engineered fields. The analysis indicated that Alexandria needs to engineer 11 of the non-engineered fields to meet current demand.
“The recently developed engineered fields, such as Ben Brenman and Boothe are examples of engineered fields that are holding up much better than most in the city inventory,” the study concluded.
A majority of the fields have more than one use, a phenomenon that leads to rapid deterioration and increases the need for maintenance. In addition to the drain of high demand, construction at T.C. Williams High School has temporarily eliminated four fields from use and the National Park Service might preeminently eliminate two fields at Jones Point Park.
On the policy side, the study recommended that the city create new guidelines to limit use at the fields. The new schedule would allow city workers to fertilize, seed and irrigate the fields at a maintenance level that would support the level of play under the new schedule. PROS concluded that the uncontrolled use of fields is a major problem, and that fields need to be designed to keep play off the fields by designating a select number of fields for non-scheduled games.
“What the study has shown us is that we are using our natural-turf fields as if they were synthetic,” said Roger Blakeley, deputy director of the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. “We’re programming them right up to the edge of any opportunity time, and then we end up with mud, low grass growth and compacted soils.”
THE EVALUATION found that a majority of the city’s athletic fields are in “poor condition,” and that all of the locations need better irrigation, lighting and parking. The PROS team said that the field conditions in Alexandria are “below acceptable industry standards” with inconsistent standards and inadequate amenities to support the level of activity that happens on them.
“Without time for rest and growth of new grass, the fields will continue to degrade until they are simply dirt fields,” the report concluded.
By investing money in creating synthetic fields at all of the city’s school sites, the study said, the government could see substantial long-term savings in the cost of maintenance. School officials said that the field at Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center is currently being converted and that money has already been budgeted to create a synthetic field at the new T.C. Williams High School.
“You can’t use these fields continuously without some wear and tear,” said Superintendent Rebecca Perry. “So the idea of increasing the number of synthetic fields is a good one — when we can afford it.”
When the report was submitted to members of the City Council last week, Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald said that his office was filled with studies that have been largely forgotten. He said that the machinery of Alexandria’s government was good at coming up with recommendations but poor at implementing them. Ultimately, he called for an annual report card to see how the staff is performing over time.
“This is a tool to plan for the future,” said Kirk Kincannon, director of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. “We want to strategically think about how to address the issues related to the overuse of the fields.”