Patrick Henry Recreation Center project faces more uncertainty

Patrick Henry Recreation Center project faces more uncertainty

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As city councilors dug into City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed 10-year capital budget at a work session last month, an already sore subject for officials quickly resurfaced: a new Patrick Henry Recreation Center.

Jinks’ proposal includes $6.8 million for the project, already appropriated in prior years. But the capital budget includes the possibility of more spending simply labeled “TBD” in fiscal 2018. The lack of a definitive number riled some city councilors.

“My concern is that we’re looking at a fiscal 2018 project, and there’s still a large unknown number sitting out there in 2018,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “We need to get under that. It seems like something we’re really going to have to understand before we can move forward.”

City budget director Morgan Routt said the current budgeted figure of $6.8 million has not been updated in a number of years, primarily because of the various changes to the project and its sister proposal by Alexandria City Public Schools to build a new Patrick Henry Elementary School building on the same property.

Since staff are examining how to fit the new school and recreation center on the property and still are probing residents for feedback on what they would like to see in a new recreation center, Routt said it is difficult to predict how costs might inflate.

“It’s been a number of years since the last cost estimate for the project,” Routt said in an interview. “We’re in the concept design phase now, but because of that span of time [since the last estimate], we could end up at a different price. Because we’re not far along with planning the project, there’s still a potential for change.”

Routt said much of the potential for change in the price tag comes from engineering and siting issues, but suggested in the work session that any increases likely would not surpass 15 percent of the most recent cost estimate or an additional $1 million.

“Even if it’s 15 percent more above what’s been budgeted, that’s like $1 million, and that’s not an insurmountable number,” he said at the meeting. “The current funding number is working perfectly fine. … But if it came in a little bit high, then we didn’t want to judge one way or another, so we wanted to flag this for council that it is an unknown.”

The uncertainty rankled city councilors, who just last year bemoaned what they described as a difficult and disconnected process. The school construction project was evaluated by the Alexandria City School Board, while the recreation center was judged separately by city council. Councilors argued last June that the projects should have been combined and judged as a whole.

City Councilor Paul Smedberg was particularly pointed in his critique of including a placeholder in the budget proposal.

“In all the time that’s passed with this project, shouldn’t we have a much better sense of where we are with this now?” Smedberg asked. “I mean, we’re talking $1 million or 2 [million], but with all of the challenges that are before us, that’s a lot. To have that amount of money dangling out there right now, that really isn’t right at this stage.”

Routt responded by stressing that staff is confident any cost increases would not surpass the $1 million figure.

“We’ve done some work on the early concept to sort of understand, from a siting position, where to go next,” he said. “While we still have some unresolved matters … we’re talking an increase probably in the 10 to 15 percent range.

“It’s a fairly small scope square footage-wise, but this project was established in 2007 or 2008. It’s been a long time that it’s been on the books, and as the project extended and was pushed back to align with the school project, it did not update its actual costs.”

“Why?” Smedberg asked.

“It wasn’t determined if there would be an impact on the school project,” Routt said. “We didn’t know what kind of efficiencies might occur.”

“With so many unknowns, you start to make assumptions on top of assumptions,” another staffer said. “At that point, there’s no good way to change the number until we get more information.”

Routt said staff hopes to have better information on the project’s total cost by the summer, albeit after city council is required to approve the budget.