A complex proposal

A complex proposal

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

When it comes to the prospect of a massive, privately owned sports complex going up on public parkland, residents say the devil is in the details.

The St. James Group, a Delaware-based company founded by Kendrick Ashton and Episcopal High School alum Craig Dixon, met with residents Monday night and discussed its plan for a sports facility at the site of Joseph Hensley Park in the West End.

The unexpected proposal includes such amenities as an 80,000-square-foot field house, two ice rinks, basketball courts, batting cages, a driving range, pools, tennis courts, a health center and spa, and childcare services.

City council decided last month — when it announced the unsolicited proposition — to take a hands-off approach to the overture. St. James Group will hold more community meetings before City Hall solicits resident feedback in the fall.

In October, city councilors will debate letting other entrepreneurs bid for a chance at erecting the massive West End complex.

While many residents said they were in favor of the concept at Monday’s meeting, they expressed concerns about leasing the park, which features softball and multipurpose fields, to a private, for-profit company.

Ashton, who grew up in southeast Washington, said he and Dixon came up with the facility proposal based on their youth, shuttling across the region to play various sports.

“It’s really an outgrowth of that experience as a kid,” he said. “[Going from sport to sport] we ran into obstacles in terms of the facilities and the accessibility.”

Many residents had questions about the fee structure — especially regarding how financially accessible the complex would be for lower- and middle-class families.

Although the company cannot reveal its pricing scheme because of a possible bidding process, Dixon promised different options.

“We’ve got various models so people can pick and choose,” Dixon said. “There’s your classic membership where you get full access to the facility for a monthly fee, or you could go by pay-per-use. You could also rent ice time or a room for a birthday party or pay fees for a lesson or have a [seasonal] fee for a specific league or team.”

Since fees won’t go public until after the bidding process, resident Katy Cannady believes city council should embed a provision in the solicitation that guarantees residents can access the facility.

“Just to clear the air on this, [the solicitation] should require a minimum amount of public use, in perpetuity,” Cannady said. “There should be an ironclad minimum amount of accessibility for the full 40 years of the lease.”

Frequent council critic Annabelle Fisher raised similar concerns.

“The concept is very nice, and you can clearly afford this for your children,” she said. “[But] from what I hear it seems geared toward families and couples with middle to high income. There are many in Alexandria living on low- to middle-class income that may not be able to take part.”

But with a project of this size, success only comes with affordable access, Ashton said.

“I grew up poor in southeast Washington, and it didn’t matter what was affordable because it just wasn’t available,” he said. “We think it will be affordable, but we’re also considering forming a foundation that on one hand will be a thought leader on the importance and the value of sport participation growing up. And it will also set up a sort of scholarship fund for kids who have a demonstrated need to be able to access the facility.”

After the meeting, City Councilor Justin Wilson noted the challenges tackling this issue posed to Alexandria’s top elected officials.

“A lot of people are very concerned with the philosophical issue — they can’t get through that,” Wilson said. “It will have to hinge on whether it’s good for the city, so there’s a lot of talking still to go.

“… Luckily, the process we approved has several exit ramps along the way. We can stop now, or if we don’t like any of the proposals in the [bid] process, we can stop after that too.”