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Squish or Squash?

Racquetball players face off with parents over the fate of a room at Chinquapin.

Parents of children who want a city-operated "soft playroom" have focussed their sights on a racquetball court at Chinquapin Recreation Center. They say that Racquetball Court No. 1 is hardly used, and that the room would be much more useful as a specially designed room similar to one currently located at the Lee District Recreation Center in Franconia. But racquetball players who use the facilities at Chinquapin are up in arms about the proposal. They say that the city has only four racquetball courts, and parents should find a location that doesn’t limit their recreational options.

In a series of public meetings and a flurry of e-mail messages, parents and racquetball players have squared off with each other — pitting advocates of services for those under 6 against those seeking recreation opportunities for adults. Meanwhile, the city Department Recreation, Parks and Cultural Services has tried to mediate between the two groups by offering two alternative locations to the 800 square-foot racquetball court: a 400 square-foot meeting room in the Nannie Lee Center and a 400 square-foot office in Chinquapin.

"It’s important for everyone to remember that no decision has been made, and that we are continuing to look for other potential locations," said Leslie Clark, division chief for recreation services. "But we’ll definitely submit a report to City Council before they go into summer recess."

FOR PARENTS, the Chinquapin site offers everything they are looking for — and they are willing to pay for the design and construction of the room. They’ve even launched a Web site to bolster their efforts — supportthesoftplayroom.com. During a public meeting on the issue last week, Rodney Salinas made a presentation that advocated converting Courtroom 1 into a soft playroom similar to the one operated by Fairfax County.

"We have outsourced the majority of our children’s recreation to Fairfax County, Arlington and other surrounding areas for decades," said Salinas, who is the co-chairman of the volunteer parents group. "It’s time for a change."

Salinas presented information comparing classes offered in Fairfax County and Alexandria, which showed a prominent disparity in Spring 2007 classes offered to those under the age of 6. The county offers 63 classes in 1,346 time slots while the city offers 16 classes in 82 time slots. (On the other hand Fairfax County’s population is around one million while Alexandria’s is 138,000.) Furthermore, Salinas said, the city’s collected data on the courts shows that they are underutilized.

"Our kids have nothing," said Salinas. "If we convert a court, the racquetball players will hardly have to give up their games."

According to RecTrac Live, a third-party vendor that tracks use and revenue for the city, none of the three courts at Chinquapin were used even 50 percent of the time. In 2006, Court 1 was in use 31 percent of the time; Court 2 was in use 41 percent of the time; and Court 3 was in use 27 percent of the time. Even during prime time for racquetball players, the weekday evening hours, Salinas presented RecTrac Live data that showed the number of times when all three of Chinquapin’s racquetball courts were booked at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. during the last 15 months.

"How many times do you think this happened?" asked Salinas before removing a piece of paper from the chart to reveal the number eight. "Eight times. These courts are underutilized."

FOR RACQUETBALL players, the issue is location. They wonder why the parents’ group is determined to locate the soft playroom in a racquetball court when the city is offering alternative locations like the meeting room in the Lee Center or the office space in Chinquapin. Because the city has only four courts — three at Chinquapin and one at Cora Kelly Recreation Center — racquetball players are concerned that they will be losing a valuable resource. Ironically, last week’s public meeting took place in a Chinquapin racquetball court that had been converted to a meeting room.

"The number of courts has declined over the years," said Sandy Cook, a longtime racquetball player. "The Baby Boomers are coming to fruition, and many of us are going to need racquetball courts for exercise."

The generational divide between the racquetball players opposing the loss of their court — some of whom are Baby Boomers — and the parents seeking to convert the court — most of whom are parents of young children. Over the past few months, the ongoing dispute between the two groups has erupted into a duel of willpower and statistics.

"I played racquetball here last night," said Ken Arnold, who has used the Chinquapin racquetball courts since the facility opened. "And all the courts were in use."

Racquetball advocates say that they are not opposed to the soft playroom, and they would be more than happy to see the city locate the facility in a site that is not currently a racquetball court. Although they admit that racquetball may not be as popular as it once was, they say that the city could do more to market the courts in the seasonal recreational guides that are mailed to all city residents. Once racquetball advocate noted that the racquetball courts are not even mentioned in the table of contents.

"Everyone is for a soft playroom," said Eric LeMoult. "We just don’t want to lose a limited resource."

EACH SIDE IS now lobbying the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities for their respective plans. The parents group has offered $30,000 for a plan to convert Court 1, a plan with blueprints that have already been drawn up. Salinas said that converting a meeting room or office could be more difficult to convert because those rooms have windows. Furthermore, he said, the racquetball court already has padded walls.

"The racquetball court was the first option offered by the city, and we’ve already got the plans to convert it," said Salinas. "The other options might present significant delays and increased costs, and we know that the city is in a tight budget situation."

"The goal here should be for the city to find a win-win situation for everybody," responded Arnold. "The city should be seeking to expand opportunities, not limit them."