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Council Mulls Nature Center Proposal

Approval of the Runnymede Park Nature Center's site plan brings out dozens of residents.

Herndon's new Town Council's first public session last week drew dozens of residents espousing a range of views about the necessity and proposed financing of a Nature Center in Runnymede Park.

The council was officially considering the approval of the site plan for the Nature Center and additional improvements to the park. The financing for the project has already been approved for the budget by the previous Town Council in May. At this point, the Nature Center and park improvements can only be eliminated by the budget if the current council decides to amend it.

The construction of an environmental education facility — the Nature Center — has been in discussion since the late 1990s. While almost everyone in attendance last week agreed that improvements need to be made to Runnymede Park, the center has been controversial due to its estimated price tag of over $1 million.

As a public bond for the construction of the park is scheduled to be issued this winter, any certainty as to the fate of the Nature Center project from a financial standpoint is still up in the air.

At the time of publication, the total cost estimate for the project totaled at just over $2 million, with a construction contingency of $200,000, according to town figures.

THE COST OF CONSTRUCTION of the Nature Facility is currently being estimated at just over $1 million. An additional cost of more than $600,000 is slated for site work and improvements to the park and nearly $200,000 has been earmarked to cover soft costs, such as utilities and site testing.

The town currently has $125,000 that has been made available specifically for the purposes of improvements to be made to Runnymede Park through a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. An additional $138,000 in available reserve funds is currently specified for this project.

That reserve budget was greatly reduced in 2004 when $500,000 was moved out from the Runnymede Park project and into the construction of the Herndon Police Department facility and the Sugarland Run Trail, according to Art Anselene, director of Herndon's Parks and Recreation Department. This money was transferred to the construction of these other projects with the understanding that the town would eventually replace the money, Anselene added.

If the project continues as it is currently scheduled, the town will most likely issue a $2 million, 20-year bond this winter to cover all the necessary project costs, Anselene said. That bond will carry a 4.75 percent interest rate, according to town documents.

Over the 20-year life of the bond, the town will pay approximately $1 million in interest.

Yearly operating costs for the Nature Center, which include maintenance, staffing and utilities are being estimated at $200,000.

"The town has sold a lot of bonds over the years, and this is no different from a lot of them," Anselene said. "Historically the town has maintained very conservative levels of bond holding ... this bond will not push the town into a bad position in terms of borrowing levels."

WHILE THE MONEY for the total cost of improvements to Runnymede Park — including the Nature Center — is currently available in the town budget, the possibility of revisiting and amending the budget to remove the center's funding is an option for the Town Council, according to councilmember Bill Tirrell.

"I sense from what we saw on Tuesday night that the people will definitely have a large debate over what should be done about the center," Tirrell said. "My sense is that there's not a lot of sentiment out there to spend this money on this project when there are a lot of other infrastructure improvements that are needed."

Tirrell added that while he supports the approval of the site plan, he thinks that more should be done with local residents and organizations to find alternative sources to fund the Nature Center.

Strides have already been made to eliminate more than a $250,000 from the cost of the Runnymede Nature Center through work with local residents and town employees according to Dave Swan, president of the Friends of Runnymede Park.

Swan also pointed out that his organization has devoted itself to raising funds to cover the $290,000 cost of furniture and the exhibits to be placed in the Nature Center upon its completion.

Anselene reaffirmed the option of looking for alternative funding for the Nature Center but also warned against the possibility of rising construction costs hampering those time-consuming efforts.

"I think that — the Friends of Runnymede will continue to look at grants, but we could start seeing the construction costs going up during that time and I don't think anyone is interested in this project being more expensive than it already is," Anselene said. "I don't think that anyone's ever seen [construction] costs go down."

Tirrell pointed toward the robust economy and the subsequently high prices for construction and all costs associated with running the town as reason to give pause towards devoting $1 million to a Nature Center.

"Those prices are high right now, and as prices go up, so does everything else, including the construction of storm drains and roads," Tirrell said. "We just need to find out what makes the most financial sense for the town right now."