OUR VIEW: Sports facility sounds good, but residents must come first

OUR VIEW: Sports facility sounds good, but residents must come first

Our View
(Photo/Erich Wagner)

In the business world, an unsolicited bid to take over a company can be good news or bad, depending on the offer. Sometimes a failing company is rescued, but often an unwanted bid leads to a nasty battle between current and prospective management. The competition, however, usually benefits shareholders.

The City of Alexandria was recently presented with an unsolicited takeover offer when The St. James Group, which includes Episcopal High School alum Craig Dixon, proposed leasing Hensley Park to build and operate a massive for-profit sports complex.

The city’s government and various civic groups will spend the next few months debating the plan’s merits, but one thought should drive the ultimate decision: Is this offer best for the concerned shareholders — Alexandria’s residents?

Hensley Park sits along Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria’s southwest corner, near Cameron Run Regional Park. It houses softball and soccer fields and is used by a variety of recreation league teams. The proposed complex would include a large field house, skating rinks, a driving range, basketball courts, pools, tennis courts, and a healthcare center and spa.

In debating whether the city should allow these fields to disappear so that a for-profit entity can operate there, several key questions must be considered:
• Is it ever appropriate to lease city park space, even if it’s a sports field and not parkland, to a for-profit entity?
• Does the fact that far more Alexandrians would be able to use the proposed complex than currently use the park’s fields mitigate the for-profit aspect?
• Access to the new complex would require either a membership or single-use fee. But Alexandria residents already pay fees to participate on city soccer, baseball and other teams, to swim at the pool at Chinquapin, and to access the Cameron Run Regional Park (operated by the Northern Virginia Park Authority) right across the street from Hensley. Is paying the fee to a private entity really any different?

There is no denying that there’s a need for a skating rink in the City of Alexandria, as any hockey parent who has driven into Fort DuPont in the District for 6 a.m. ice time will attest. The variety of other proposed sports at the complex is impressive. In addition, the new soccer fields near the YMCA along Monroe Avenue have made Hensley Park’s soccer fields less vital.

Several basic conditions should be guaranteed for the lifetime of the lease for this proposal to merit consideration. First, Alexandria residents must be guaranteed access to all of the facilities for a negotiated percentage of the time. This provision would be especially vital for the ice rink. The last thing we want is to give up our sports fields only to be shut out of the facility so a higher-paying group from Reston can skate.

Second, Alexandria residents should pay a lower fee than nonresidents. Finally, the city’s lowest-income residents also need to have access.

This proposal would be a nonstarter if the sports fields were simply going to be developed into condos or an office building. But a large, multiuse sports complex could be a real asset to the city. Just don’t forget about the city’s shareholders.