To Expand Or Not To Expand?

To Expand Or Not To Expand?

McLean Community Center seeks public input on expansion project and future of Teen Center.

Last spring, pure circumstance led to an unusual changing of the guard for the McLean Community Center's 11-member Governing Board. Only one of the board members eligible for re-election decided to run. Subsequently, the board found itself with a five new adult members at the conclusion of its annual May elections.

"So we had a real change in the composition of the board," said Jan Auerbach, vice chair of the Governing Board.

One of the first topics of discussion for the new board was the future of the Community Center's Teen Center, currently located at the Old Firehouse in downtown McLean. Rumors of its imminent relocation had been circulating, causing many citizens to be alarmed about what sort of commercial development would replace the Old Firehouse building.

In late 2005, Dranesville District Supervisor Joan DuBois met with the McLean Community Center Governing Board. Members of that board said that DuBois had asked them to move the Teen Center, as the Old Firehouse was in the way of the proposed McLean Revitalization Main Street design. Subsequently, the 2005 Governing Board listed the Teen Center relocation as "its highest expansion priority." However, today, DuBois says that the Governing Board had misunderstood the discussion.

"I said that the Teen Center needed to be moved in the relatively near future if the Main Street concept described in the Revitalization Plan is to go forward as designed," said DuBois.

The 2006-2007 Governing Board felt that controversy surrounding the future of the Teen Center was partially due to the fact that most residents are unaware of the McLean Community Center's expansion study that has been going on since 2002.

"We thought, wait a minute, we really shouldn't be rushing into judgment on what should be done with the Teen Center because we were concerned that a lot of this was happening without much public awareness," said Auerbach.

THOUGHTS OF EXPANSION first arose in 2002 when the Community Center staff reported that they had been rejecting an increasing number of requests for use of the center's space. A subsequent expansion feasibility study indicated that the current number of parking spaces at the Community Center allows for the addition of a maximum of 17,000 square feet of space to the building. The center's Governing Board decided to do some research to determine what kind of additions — if any — should be made.

In 2004, 900 residents were randomly surveyed at the local election polls; 20 percent of those surveyed said they never used the center, and 60 percent said they used it occasionally. Survey participants listed a gymnasium, rooms for classes and educational programs, family programs, rental space for parties and private functions, specialized studio space for arts and crafts, an after-school drop-in activity area for children, and rooms for large community events as the components they would most like to see added to the center.

However, Governing Board members felt that the random survey was somewhat out of context, and therefore flawed. For example, many of those surveyed were probably unaware of the fact that an extensive physical recreation area is planned for Spring Hill Recreation Center.

"A physical recreation area was a the top of the list, but would they still have wanted that if they knew that there will eventually be one at Spring Hill Rec Center?" said Auerbach.

In April of 2005, the Governing Board held a series of focus groups in an effort to further research the desires and needs of the community. However, focus group participants told the board that they felt they were not provided with enough data to formulate a strong opinion on the questions asked.

THE CURRENT Governing Board is continuing to gather information to determine whether or not expansion of the center is necessary, and if it is, what kind of expansion should occur.

"We firmly believe that we shouldn't expand the current facilities unless we really are convinced that they are being used to the maximum extent," said Auerbach.

The board has been conducting a number of detailed community surveys. On Oct. 17, the center began a random telephone survey of local residents, and on Oct. 11, three computers were set up in the center's entryway, offering users the opportunity to sit down and anonymously answer a detailed electronic questionnaire. The computer survey bases its questions on the user's preceding answers, resulting in a survey personalized to each individual. In addition, the board is conducting a detailed study of McLean's demographics.

There are currently four surveys being conducted that are specifically related to the Teen Center. Two Teen Center user surveys — one for teens, and one for their parents — were started on Nov. 1. Two surveys — one of 400 7th and 8th graders, and one for their parents — started in mid-November under the sponsorship of Fairfax County Public Schools. The school sponsored survey is scheduled to be completed by Jan. 1, 2007. In addition, the Safe Community Coalition Student Advisory Council is researching how the Teen Center can attract high school students.

"The Teen Center is used by 7th graders, and to some degree 8th graders, but we've lost the high school students," said Auerbach.

That the Teen Center is only used by a small demographic between the hours of 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. is one factor working against leaving it in its Old Firehouse location.

"That's prime real estate, so can we justify using it?" said Auerbach, adding that bringing high school students back into the mix might be one way to strengthen the case for keeping the Teen Center right where it is.

According to Auerbach, there are several options for the Teen Center, four of which are: leaving it where it is, as it is; leaving it where it is, but substantially renovating it; allowing the county to sell it with a proffer that the new building on the site provide one floor for the designated use of the Teen Center; or, moving it to the new Community Center/Library complex. In addition, Auerbach said it has also been suggested that the upcoming Longfellow Middle School renovations include a Teen Center annex.

"We do have many more Teen Center users coming from Longfellow than Cooper, which is understandable since Cooper is much further away," said Auerbach.

DuBois said that if the Governing Board can get the community to agree on an option for the Teen Center, she will support whatever that option is.

THE GOVERNING BOARD will study the results of the various surveys during the first few months of 2007. At this time, the board will also conduct a financial analysis of the center's long-term revenue projections and its ability to repay a bond. In 2002 the Governing Board finished paying off the Community Center's original bond, it has subsequently been able to put away a sizable savings of $3 million.

"We're not going to build anything more than we can afford with the money we've already saved, plus a bond that would not raise the existing tax-rate," said Auerbach.

She added that the Governing Board is also looking into alternatives to expansion, such as establishing local community partnerships and simply making more intense use of the existing space.

"We know we're going to end up doing something, we're just not sure what it is yet," said Auerbach.

Between March and mid-April, the board will schedule several public meetings on the possible expansion options. Board members will make a final decision on expansion and possible relocation of the Teen Center by April 30, 2007 . For now, the main objective is to get as many residents as possible to participate in the various surveys.

"We're trying to get as much public input and consensus as we can," said Auerbach.

For her part, she is looking forward to seeing the results of the surveys and working with the board to create the facility that the public wants.

"It's an exciting project — it's the main reason that I ran to get back on the Governing Board," said Auerbach.