Post 4: Recreation Under One Roof? Nature Conservation Given New Attention?

Providence Rec Center
Providence Rec Center
James Lee Community Center
James Lee Community Center

As Noted in our Post No 2, Fairfax has two Parks & Recreation agencies, the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA), and the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS), formerly Community and Recreation Services (CRS).

Through their recreation centers (FCPA) and community centers (NCS), both agencies offer recreation facilities and programs. Teen and senior centers are housed at NCS recreation centers.

The agencies’ other primary missions are nature preservation (FCPA), historic preservation (FCPA) and social services (NCS).  FCPA is run by an appointed board; NCS is under the County Executive.

 

This to propose merging one or more of their functions. 

Here are their mission statements, copied from their home pages:

“The Park Authority Mission is to enrich quality of life for all members of the community through an enduring park system that provides a healthy environment, preserves natural and cultural heritage, offers inspiring recreational experiences, and promotes healthy lifestyles.”

Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS) promotes the well-being of individuals, families and communities by providing a variety of recreation, educational and developmental programs and services; by facilitating community engagement to identify areas of need and enhance countywide capacity for serving those needs; and by connecting residents with a broad spectrum of county- and community-based resources and services to help them be safe, be healthy and realize their potential.”

Merging the two agencies was last considered during Robert J. O’Neill’s tenure as County Executive from 1997-1999.  Tasked with finding efficiencies, he proposed a merger, noting many overlaps in their functions [1].  The proposal was considered but ultimately rejected by the Board of Supervisors.  Deciding factors included the Park Authority’s status as a separate entity that does not report to the County Executive and the Park Authority’s mission to preserve green space.

FCPA and NCS have one shared responsibility, athletic fields.  NCS schedules the use of fields; FCPA owns and maintains them.

Why consider this anew?

  • Per Mr. O’Neill’s proposal, eliminate overlap.  What if a senior center operated out of a rec center, so that a visitor could enjoy her computer or board game club, followed by a swim, in the same building?  What if a teen could enjoy a rec center class, then walk down the hall to the drop-in teen center to hang out with friends or get help with homework afterwards?
  • Why do we vote on separate bond referenda for community centers, and recreation centers? How could the county save money by eliminating duplicate operations — administration and all its components, maintenance, equipment?  How many Park Authority classes are cancelled for under-enrollment, reservable picnic and meeting sites underused, that would benefit from being planned for the benefit of the community, together with the planning undertaken by NCS? A comprehensive list of questions and considerations could fill a notebook.
  • Our neighboring jurisdictions — Arlington, Alexandria, Loudoun, Prince William, Washington DC, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland — have one parks and recreation agency.  Loudoun’s “Parks, Recreation and Community Services” oversees services to the aging and their caregivers.   Arlington’s gyms are community centers. They charge a fee as our recreation centers do, but they offer reduced membership rates based on income.  As for teen centers — places that offer arts & crafts, help with homework, supervised outings, service opportunities, games such as table tennis — are operated in all our neighboring jurisdictions by the parks & recreation agency.  Why not look at why we are different, is that better for us, and if it is, how is it better?
  • Better integrate social health and environmental health.  A teen summer program might be organized to grow a community orchard or restore a degraded piece of open space.  A post-trauma support group could feature nature walks and outdoor drawing.  A community-building program could encourage and support community-led and organized outdoor festivals in parks. Nature could be better integrated with all aspects of human services.  While the two agencies can of course jointly plan and execute programs, much more could be done with unified strategic planning, budgeting, and personnel.
  • Concurrently, think about a separate focus for nature stewardship.  At the same time that recreation is examined, nature stewardship would benefit from its own focus.  It’s the Park authority’s other mission, but it can get lost in the mix of recreation and stewardship that exists today within FCPA.  It can be tough for the citizen to understand the current state of our parklands’ natural health.   FCPA does not separately report out in annual reports on nature stewardship, nor in its park bond voter information publications.  Sometimes where it’s itemized, it is together as one with historic building preservation and archaeology.
    • If we were to examine nature stewardship, we’d want to look at not only the Park Authority, but also the county’s Division of Public Works and Environmental Services, which does stream and wetland restoration and urban forestry.  We could look at better integrating non-government organizations such as the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia, and others.

Back to recreation:  A less-than-desirable outcome of our dual-agency system is that while NCS can focus on providing services, the Park Authority increasingly focuses on struggling to keep its money-makers, golf courses and recreation centers, going.  To see how far this has come, look at the Park Authority’s March 2018 report, “FCPA System-wide Sustainability Plan for RECCenters” (link to PDF here) [2].  It is 194 pages with sections titled “demand analysis,” “market analysis,” “strategic asset value analysis”; with exhibits with titles like “Direct Alternative Consumer Options.”  “Rec Center Portfolio” on page 177 drops rec centers into a matrix which classifies them as: Question Marks, Laggards, Pillars, and Stars.

“Laggards operate in low growth markets and have limited profitability. In many instances, divestiture of assets is recommended to stem losses and reinvest capital into more profitable enterprises. However, with the understanding that profit is not the sole motive of the Park Authority, divestiture of a RECenter site is not warranted. Instead, limited investment in these sites is appropriate considering the restricted growth opportunities.” 

Although this same report recommends expanding one of the “laggards,” Providence Rec Center [p. 9] it’s easy to see this could be buried alongside the recommendation to expand multiple other rec centers, build a brand new one in Reston, and build a competition sports center.  Spring Hill and Oak Marr rec centers, with their ” high market share within a fast or lucrative industry” are labeled Stars.  This was made possible in major part by construction projects financed by voters in the 2012 park bond: $7.11 million for Spring Hill — a contribution from the taxpayers that doesn’t get counted as an expense in all of this financial calculation.

If you open this report and scroll down to pp. 189-191, you will see the projected cost for moving a couple more of these centers from the “pillars” category, which is one level above “laggards,” into the “stars” category — several hundred million $.  Pages 168 and 169 show the construction cost for a new Reston Rec Center and the new competition sports center as at least $50 million each.

So, no doubt the 2020 park bond referendum will include large sums for recreation center construction.  Meanwhile, dozens of master plans for community and special focus — celebration and advancement of the environment, of horticulture, of culture focus — all with their implementation “dependent on future funding” are alive on paper only.  Some of these plans are decades old.  We need to revisit all these plans, we the public and our government, together.

It appears we’re on track for continued spending of public dollars to favor centers with better revenue potential, and to build new facilities where the private sector could fill the need, given a purely revenue-earning goal.  While it’s fine for a business to build gleaming facilities in richer neighborhoods, it’s not the best fit for a public agency.  We should not be tasking our parks agency to mimic the private sector.  Today, a lower-earner’s tax payment helps pay for rec center construction, as a higher earner’s does; but that person may not be able to afford to bring his or her family to a rec center for some stress-relieving recreation.

Conversation is needed about the type of recreation centers we want.  Community consideration and advice is needed, by way of local recreation councils or similar groups of citizens.  Decisions might be needed about how to pay for services, and what is better given up and/or left to local businesses to provide.

We should include in these conversations the current role of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, for we support it with a contribution from the county budget; and with our votes for park bonds, the proceeds of which are often shared with this Authority.  Where is there overlap with our two county agencies there, and what other issues merit a close look at this agency?

A unified recreation system would be better able to balance the need for revenue with the mission to serve all of the public.  There are many ways to merge functions or to operate jointly, and changes could be phased. It’s a matter of looking at what has changed, since the Park Authority was created; what has changed, since the late 1990’s; what we need, for today and for the future.

It will take citizens working together to consider what see as best for the county; and to advocate for a re-envisioned parks, recreation, and conservation system.

Marie Reinsdorf

[1] “Robert J. O’Neill, Jr. and the Fairfax County Government (A),” Darden Business Publishing Publication UVA-OB-0702, University of Virginia, (c) 2000.

[2] Available online on the Park Authority website (“About Us”/”Publications and Plans”)