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Building a Heart for Fairfax

With $5 million donation for community center, Sherwood family helps city realize a 40-year-old wish.

As a longtime resident of the City of Fairfax and co-founder of some of its many music and arts programs, Geraldine Sherwood had experienced how difficult it can be to secure a permanent rehearsal space for her passion. And like many of her neighbors, Sherwood also believes it’s time the city finally has one of the missing components of downtown redevelopment: a permanent community center.

Thus, Sherwood decided six months ago to donate $5 million for the city to finally realize its plans for a community center in Van Dyck Park, a formally elusive idea that dates back to 1967.

Sherwood’s husband, Stacy Sherwood, served the city as a councilmember, as did her father-in-law, and it is for this reason she chose to donate the money in memory of them.

"We were always looking for a place to play music and rehearse," said Sherwood. "[The donation] is in honor of my husband and his father. He grew up in Fairfax and his father was a Fairfax native. I felt like they gave the city a lot and the city has given a lot in return."

WITH NEWS OF the donation made public at the final City Council meeting of 2007, on Tuesday, Dec. 11, councilmembers, city staff and the Parks and Recreation Department are now charged with shaping the size and cost of the project.

"We are humbled with the magnitude of this gift and want to carry out the wishes of the family carefully," said Robert Sisson, city manager. "It’s the realization of a dream that has been long expressed by city leadership. It’s a wonderful capstone for community renewal that we’ve seen over the last few years — and good things keep going on and on."

According to Sisson, Sherwood’s donation was done in the form of stock and the city will take receipt of the appreciated stock. It will be held in an escrow account and given in increments upon the completion of certain benchmarks. The city will receive $1 million upon final engineering plans, $2 million at the start of construction and the final $2 million at the end of construction.

For now, councilmembers are in the process of deciding just how large the facility should be. At the Dec. 11 City Council meeting, three preliminary designs were presented by The Hughes Group, an architectural firm based in Leesburg that has designed a number of area community centers, including locations in Falls Church and Herndon. While only suggestive, the three designs illustrated the size and price of various facilities. According to Sisson, the first option, which totaled about 14,000 square feet and $5.4 million was the most viable. The largest facility, a two-story building roughly 32,000 square feet, carries an estimated price tag of $10.7 million.

"We have some preliminary designs that an architect has provided to us," he said. "There is really no expressed interest in pursuing a larger facility than what the value of the gift offered is."

Ultimately, Sisson said the focus is staying within the budget of the donated money, but constructing a facility that would allow for future additions is a viable option.

MIKE MCCARTY, DIRECTOR of the City’s Parks and Recreation Department is still thrilled with the donation and thinks building the facility is "going to be a true legacy for anyone involved in the process."

"It’s been a long time coming and it’s finally here," he said. "It’s the closest we’ve ever been to building a community center."

According to McCarty, the proposed community center’s location at Van Dyck Park dates back to the original plans from 1967, but more importantly, the site was chosen because of its central location in the city.

"It’s smack dab in the middle of the city," said McCarty. "It’s also the most used park and the hub for all of our trails."

"Being so close to the center, everything kind of converges there," he said. "It’s easy to get there and centrally located."

Both McCarty and Sisson agreed that the next step is finding a clear-cut direction for planning to take shape. The council will decide on the operations, or public use, surrounding the facility and move from there. The new center would be expected to house youth and adult recreation programs, cultural activities and the senior programs currently held at Green Acres Center. According to a press release from the city, a feasibility study is slated for completion by early 2008 and design should follow by the end of next year. Construction would soon follow and the city is anticipating the center being open in 2010.

But regardless of the size and scope of the facility, Sherwood has a lot of ideas as to what can happen within.

"I see it as a place where everyone can go — children and adults alike," she said. Sherwood also noted how it would be wonderful to have a place for antique shows, art shows, facilities for painting, playing bridge, exercising and a meeting place for senior citizens.

"Really, it’s just wide open for use and there’s a playing field outside," she said.

And as for the timing of donating the $5 million, which many on the City Council and staff have noted it being within this "season of giving," Sherwood stated that she thought "time was of the essence."

"It’s because I’m old and I wanted to see something open while I’m hopefully alive," she joked.

McCarty mirrored the sentiments of many people involved in the community center development, stating that this is a great addition to the city’s renaissance and, thanks to the Sherwood family, will provide an "opportunity for people to meet and gather, learn and build skills."