What happens when a park's best kept secret is kept too quiet?
Residents of Mason Neck came dangerously close to losing the large, outdoor swimming pool at Pohick Bay Regional Park because too few people were using it.
"The pool has seen dramatically declining use since the mid-1990s," said Paul Gilbert, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. "We've been operating in the red, but fewer people are coming each year."
When the pool was built in the 1970s, it was among the largest on the east coast, Gilbert said. However, as more communities were including neighborhood pools, the need for a large facility decreased.
A few weeks ago, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority decided it would be a better idea to close the pool and install an "alternate fixture" than try to keep it open for one more summer, Gilbert said.
The decision was announced by a concerned resident at a recent meeting of the South County Federation, and Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) decided to take action.
"I talked to Mr. Gilbert after the meeting and he got the distinct impression that I was disappointed they wanted to close the pool without any input from the community," Hyland said. "This would have been the first facility the regional park authority had closed and we decided that maybe it wasn't the way they wanted to go."
When the authority met, they decided to give the pool one more year to bring in customers, Gilbert said. If, at the end of the 2006 season, the pool hasn't seen a sizable increase in attendance, the pool may close for good.
In 2005, the park authority spent $117,000 to operate and maintain the pool, but only received about $84,000 in revenue, he said. "There have been losses for years, usually in the $40,000 to $50,000 range," and it has become less and less appealing to open the pool for the summer season, Gilbert said.
LAST WEEK, Gilbert met with a group of residents from along Mason Neck to discuss ways to promote the pool and encourage more people to visit, he said.
"Most of the people I met with agreed that they wanted to help work to make this pool successful," Gilbert said. "I think there will be a good faith effort to turn things around. At the end of the summer, we'll have another choice to make."
The pool, with a blue and white tile pattern and scalloped edges, is not the small "kiddy pool" typically associated with camping facilities, Gilbert said.
"This pool was built to serve a larger area because there were fewer community pools back then," he said. "Unfortunately, it's sort of tucked away out of the public eye."
As part of the efforts to save the pool, Gilbert said he and the residents he met with are hoping to offer some incentives to encourage people to visit this summer.
"We're hoping to get more materials sent out by the schools to let parents know we're here," Gilbert said.
In addition, for this summer, seasons for the pool will be sold at a discounted rated. There are season passes that include all pools in the Northern Virginia Park Authority domain for $80, which include use of the Cameron Run water park, he said. Additional passes would be $70 each for members of a family or large group.
Another option would be a pass that would allow someone to visit all the pools except Cameron Run. The first season pass would cost $72 and each additional pass would be $50, Gilbert said.
For those people who just want to visit the Pohick Bay pool, an unlimited season pass would cost $50 for one pass, $40 for each additional pass for family members, he said.
"That's the best rate we've offered since we opened, which we typically offer to homeowner's associations," he said. "We want to make it available to anyone that wants to buy one."
Individual day passes can be purchased at the park, with rates of $5.25 for adults, $4.75 for children ages four through 12 and $4.25 for senior citizens, he said.
Gilbert said he hopes more signs, in addition to the reduced prices for passes, will encourage people to visit the pool.
"Having a pool in this park is a great amenity," he said. "In this case, it's one that has not been used by the public as much as it needs to in order to be viable."
WHEN SHE HEARD the pool was closing, Fairfax Station resident Teresa Champion said she was surprised.
"I didn't even know there was a pool there," said the mother of two young children. "I've been to the park with scouting events and I had no idea the pool existed."
Champion said she remembers taking swimming lessons at outdoor pools as a child and would like to give her children the same option, now that she knows it's available.
"I think it's a great option for families, especially if it's affordable," Champion said. "If you go to a location where you can only have swimming lessons, you have to go somewhere else for any other activities. This is so much easier."
She hopes the park authority employees will take it upon themselves to visit homeowners associations and community groups to get the word out about the pool.
"People talk about the lack of public amenities like this," she said. "If they want people to come there, they need to know it's available."
Hyland agrees keeping the pool open would be beneficial to the community.
"This is a facility that would be used by others if they knew it existed," Hyland said. "I really hope we can find a way to keep it open."