On Saturday, Mayor Bill Euille gave his State of the City address in the gleaming new Charles Houston recreation center. City officials from the mayor to Director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities Kirk Kincannon all talked of how proud they are of Alexandrias newest recreation center. No one present mentioned the elephant in the room: the colossal failure of planning and oversight that allowed a project approved in 2003 with a budget of $4.2 million to somehow spiral out of control to a staggering final cost of $15.3 million.
We find this final tally an affront to the taxpayers of Alexandria. Further, we believe that city officials need to clear up a number of concerns. First, why did the city commission a 10-year Parks and Recreation needs assessment in 2001, then not stick to the recommendations that were adopted in 2003 stemming from that report? Those recommendations called for renovation of both the Charles Houston and Patrick Henry centers.
Also, how did a project that was approved at $4.2 million wind up costing almost four times that much? Just as important, why was it deemed acceptable to delay indefinitely the renovation at Patrick Henry, which is in a part of town with fewer available recreation resources?
In addition, given that the gymnasium at the old Charles Houston was perfectly serviceable and that there are two other community gymnasiums within one mile (Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center on Jefferson Street and the Boys and Girls Club at the intersection of Payne and Princess streets) why was a decision not made to simply add a wing of classroom space to the existing Charles Houston structure rather than raze and completely rebuild?
Finally, are those responsible for these decisions and overruns going to be held accountable for their actions and (lack of) oversight? This question is especially relevant given the economic times we face. Alexandrians need to be able to trust their officials to make responsible, balanced choices as extremely difficult decisions loom. We generally view Alexandrias elected officials as both capable and well-intentioned, which makes this excessive cost overrun even more glaring.
In every spending decision that a city makes, tradeoffs are made. The first tradeoff is to take hard-earned money out of taxpayers pockets to fund projects and services that are supposed to be for the public good. The second tradeoff is in choosing to fund one project or service over another. In choosing to pour such a disproportionate amount of city resources into one project, in the one part of the city that least needs it the East End city officials showed a surprising lack of judgment.
So, Alexandrians are left with a glittering new Charles Houston recreation center in an area of the city that is being redeveloped away from low-income residents, a Patrick Henry recreation center that sorely needs more space, a total lack of facilities in the Landmark area, and city officials who have some questions to answer.