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A lifeguard at The Water Mine in Reston (via Fairfax County Park Authority/YouTube)

A shortage of seasonal workers has the Fairfax County Park Authority straining to stay afloat at the time of year when many of its facilities — from swimming pools to the Scotts Run Nature Preserve — tend to be busiest.

The agency announced last week that the visitor center at Huntley Meadows Park in Hybla Valley will have reduced hours throughout August, citing difficulties in recruiting staff. While the park itself will remain open from dawn to dusk, the visitor center’s indoor exhibits and public restrooms are currently only available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Though that has been the most long-lasting impact, the capacity limitations have also forced facilities to close early or not open at all some days, and some programs have been curtailed “on occasion,” FCPA spokesperson Judith Pedersen said in a statement to FFXnow:

It has been a very difficult season for the Park Authority in terms of hiring seasonal employees. In large measure, a shortage of applicants and COVID-19 illnesses have made it hard to staff our facilities and programs. On occasion we have had to close facilities or curtail programs or classes due to staff shortages. Conversely, our staff has stepped up to fill those gaps, work extra shifts or manage the situation to avoid closures and cancellations. We continue to be challenged with a shortage of lifeguards both for indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities.

According to Pedersen, the park authority can have as many as 1,600 to 1,700 non-merit employees, meaning part-time, seasonal or temporary workers. The agency hires 600 to 700 workers for each summer season, which runs from May through September.

Though the park authority didn’t provide the specific number of vacancies it has, its webpage for summer hires lists 15 different kinds of available positions, from lifeguards and camp leaders to a Sully Historic Site maintenance assistant.

The park authority has offered $100 sign-up and retention bonuses to summer workers, along with free access to all of the county’s recreation centers throughout the season.

Pedersen says FCPA has also increased its salaries and made a concerted recruiting push through social media, virtual hiring fairs, and drive-up interviews.

Fairfax County isn’t alone in struggling to staff pools and other recreational facilities this summer. Reston Association closed two pools for multiple days last month, and looking nationally, more than half of the pools in Pennsylvania’s state parks are closed or have shortened hours.

The American Lifeguard Association estimated in June that insufficient staff would affect a third of pools in the country, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said a slowdown in temporary international workers has contributed to the labor shortage.

In Fairfax County, the park authority continues to adapt to the changing circumstances, seeking to provide the facilities and programming that residents expect without compromising safety or the quality of its services.

“It is a balancing act between the absolute need for safety to be paramount, and our desire to meet the recreational needs and desires of the public,” Pedersen said.

Screenshot via Fairfax County Park Authority/YouTube

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More sidewalks might be coming to Lockheed Blvd near Hybla Valley in an effort to create a better, safer connection to Huntley Meadows Park.

Franconia District Supervisor Rodney Lusk and Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay introduced a board matter on Tuesday (Aug. 2) calling for a portion of the leftover fiscal year 2022 budget to be used to fill a gap of about 1,500 feet of sidewalk on Lockheed Blvd leading up to the county-operated park.

Right now, there’s no sidewalk to the main entrance of Huntley Meadows Park. Adding one would make the 1,500-acre park safer and more accessible, the board matter says.

“I believe it is important that we fill that gap as soon as possible,” the board matter reads. “Not only would this make for a safer route for residents to get to Huntley Meadows, but it would also create a safer connection to the nearby Hybla Valley Elementary School.”

The school is less than a 10-minute walk from the park, but without a consistent sidewalk, the route there is inaccessible and unsafe. McKay acknowledged that student and pedestrian safety are top of mind after recent crashes.

“The idea that elementary school kids would have to cross a busy street not at a signalized intersection anywhere in two different places from the school to the park, which is a natural treasure of Fairfax County, seems to me not the message we want to be sending,” McKay said after reading the matter.

Extending the sidewalk and adding safer entrance points is not a new ask. In May, a local pedestrian and bicyclist safety organization called for protected bike lanes on Lockheed Blvd near the park.

Located less than a mile from Richmond Highway, Huntley Meadows Park is the largest park operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority. Established in 1975, the park has forests as well as open freshwater wetlands that have been described as a “waterfowl-filled oasis.”

There are trails, a picnic shelter, a visitor center, and a historic early 19th-century house once owned by George Mason’s grandson.

Lusk noted that the neighborhood and nearby school have one of the highest rates of students on free and reduced lunch in the county.

“Many residents [here] rely on public transportation or they are walking or biking as their primary form of transportation,” said Lusk.

Additionally, the new North Hill development and park are under construction less than a mile away from Huntley Meadows. Phase one could be completed later this year, and overall, it could bring over a thousand more residents to this portion of the Richmond Highway corridor.

The question, of course, is money. The board matter requests that the project be considered for the 2022 carryover budget, which will get a public hearing and vote on Oct. 11, but there was some debate about the project’s priority.

“We all have lots of projects that we want to put forward. We might want to have some criteria,” Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross said. “We all have pedestrian projects that we are anxious to get done. Last time we looked there were a thousand [projects] on the list, so the carryover [budget] may not make a dent in that.”

Images via Google Maps [1, 2]

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