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Aging Mt. Vernon RECenter could close for 2 years for expansion

Rendering shows an expansion and a renovation for the Mount Vernon RECenter (via Fairfax County)

The Mount Vernon RECenter could shutter for two years as part of a multi-phase expansion and renovation worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Fairfax County Park Authority is expected to vote Wednesday (March 23) on a staff proposal that recommended the temporary closing. If approved, the facility would close starting in early 2023, the authority told FFXnow.

Constructed in 1979, the facility’s infrastructure is faltering, but an expansion and renovation could cost over 55% more than planned, with the total project poised to cost $63.2 million to $67.2 million.

“We are very concerned with the systems failing and us having to have an emergency shutdown,” Fairfax County Park Authority Deputy Director Sara Baldwin said.

Some $4.7 million of $40.7 million allocated for the upgrades has already been spent.

The facility currently features a pool, fitness center, and year-round ice rink, popular with youth and adult hockey players. The expansion proposes expanding a fitness area and adding a second sheet of ice designed to NHL standards.

FCPA staff have considered “phased” closures that could last three years or more, among other options, but that could result in millions of dollars in lost revenue each year.

If the center is fully closed in the interim, which could shorten the length of construction, the park authority expects to expand hours at the George Washington RECenter about four miles to the south.

Concerns over repairs, funding voiced

According to a staff presentation during the park authority board’s March 9 meeting, the aging Mount Vernon RECenter, located at 2017 Belle View Boulevard, currently requires frequent repairs and about $4.9 million in critical maintenance needs.

Problems range from a failing roof to a rink dehumidification system that recently crashed as well as a chiller that broke last summer. A rental chiller is currently on a flatbed trailer outside and could cost the authority $200,000 per year.

Linwood Gorham, the board’s Mount Vernon District representative, said the issues facing the rec center signal a long downward spiral for the authority’s finances.

“We need more funding for parks,” he said. “We’re in desperate times moneywise.”

FCPA operations largely rely on customer fees, but the county government contributes and is slated to give the authority $30.1 million from the general fund for the upcoming fiscal year. Park authority staff say that represents about a penny of the county’s $1.14 per $100 of assessment property tax.

The fiscal year 2023 proposed budget also moves the timeline for parks bond referendums from every four years to every six years, which FCPA officials fear will adversely affect the parks system.

The Mount Vernon RECenter project has gotten funding from 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020 bonds. Design work began in 2017.

But construction costs have risen amid the pandemic, and project bids from August 2021 meant there would be a $22.5 to $26.5 million shortfall, according to the park authority.

The park authority attributed the increased costs due to updated drawings and other factors, such as supply-chain issues amid COVID-19, market uncertainty and risks for construction firms, and complex phasing to keep the rec center open.

The FCPA told residents in September that it rejected all the bids and will monitor the market and re-bid when supply and pricing stabilize, saying it was hopeful this would occur in early 2022.

By waiting to restart the bidding process, the authority hopes to bring the project’s costs down.

Project challenges reflect countywide issues

Countywide, the park authority has about $166 million in amenities that need repairs or have exceeded their lifespan, including RECenters, athletic fields, buildings, roads and parking areas, and trails. When adding in other unfunded projects and investments, the authority has identified over $1 billion in capital projects.

FCPA Administrative Director Michael Peter said that, with $100 million in bonds every six years, they wouldn’t be able to get through that list until 2082, and that doesn’t take into account inflation or other potential setbacks.

Park authority members suggested continuing to work with county supervisors to re-examine funding proposals as well as sharing concerns with the public about needs. The county Board of Supervisors has public hearings on its budget scheduled for April 12-14 and will vote on the final version on May 10.

Kiel Stone, the park authority board’s Braddock District representative, said at the March 9 meeting the system shouldn’t be led so much by spending for rec centers.

“We’re — I feel, this is my opinion — that we’re held hostage as a system by our rec centers,” he said.

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