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Votes

Reconsidering Town Projects

New council works to reel in town spending.

Herndon residents watched as new developments were introduced and others were put on hold during 2006, when long-term capital improvement projects took a lead role in residents’ concerns and policy-makers’ consideration.

Welcoming an overhaul of the Herndon Community Center, residents and council members also grappled with downtown revitalization and the long-proposed nature center addition to Runnymede Park, the town’s 58-acre nature sanctuary.

"I think we had a lot of issues when it came to the town’s [Capital Improvement Program] this year," said Herndon town manager Steve Owen. "There were some changes made and some challenges presented to us."

AFTER A TOTAL of nine years of planning, the renovated Herndon Community Center was unveiled to residents in November, capping a $3.5 million construction project that added 11,000 new square feet of space for center patrons, including an expanded weight room, new staff offices and a teen center.

"It felt great to be able to move in, to get all our programs and activities back up again," said Art Anselene, director of Herndon’s Parks and Recreation Department. "We’re still getting settled in, but already we’ve noticed how great it is to have all the extra space."

The restructured community center has been a project of modernization, town beautification and local pride, Anselene added, pointing out the added streetscape and state-of-the-art equipment and programs available to area residents.

"We’ve had a lot of great comments from the public about how the new building looks and how nice the entrance is," he said. "We’re finding now that people really like the modern feel to it."

BUT WITH THE COMPLETION of one major capital improvement project came the foregoing of another.

After a debate that stretched over the course of several weeks, Herndon’s new Town Council voted 6 - 1 in November to strike down funding earmarked for local parks and the downtown, including a bond that would have provided more than $2 million for improvements to Runnymede Park and the construction of a nature center. The decision to remove the nature center funds from the town’s CIP until a tentative date of 2012 came after the council voted to approve its site plan.

Several council members have said that they were elected running on tickets of fiscal conservative policies when asked why they eliminated funding for the improvement projects.

"We were glad to see the initial site plan get improved, but I’m just disappointed that it ended up this way," said Dave Swan, president of the Friends of Runnymede Park, a local organization that organizes activities and volunteer opportunities at the park. "We look forward to any future consideration of the funding and a town that will see more value in having a local nature center."

At a recent town council work session, the project was pushed from this year’s fiscal budget to 2012 with a special note to seek public grants and independent investments. Swan has pointed out that raising enough private money to fund the site’s construction has taken historically a long time in other local municipalities, and that public grant money for municipal projects is hard to come by.

"We have a great design plan and some great ideas for the nature center," Swan said. "We’re just hoping at this point to get the chance to put them to use."

HERNDON WAS ALSO left at the end of the year with a newly-found lack of interest for a public-private relationship with developers that would utilize public land for new downtown construction of residential, commercial and municipal uses, including a long-awaited cultural arts center and a modern parking garage.

A floundering real estate market and the loss of property were tagged as the reasons after staff did not receive any developer proposals by the Dec. 12 deadline. The town is seeking a public-private partnership, or PPEA, to exchange municipal property for promises of construction of community facilities.

"Obviously things have changed with the land assemblage and the market, and we have to work within these new challenges," Owen said, referring to the falling through of the sale of a key downtown property. "But we have a lot of great things going on and people are interested in revitalizing our downtown."

Town staff and local elected officials will now review a set of options to proceed with downtown development, Owen said, pointing out the possibility of an adjusted PPEA proposal or town-sponsored development as a precursor to private development.

"I think the town still has a considerable amount of property that is in a prime area," said Herndon town council member Dave Kirby. "I think it’s coming along as far as the predictions for the real estate market go, and I think we’ll start to see some great offers as we get into the new year."