Your View: Chinquapin pool ‘pause’ shakes my faith in public-private partnerships

Your View: Chinquapin pool ‘pause’ shakes my faith in public-private partnerships

By Bill Rivers, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
Just to start off, I am writing as a private citizen; not in my role as chairman of Advocates for Alexandria Aquatics. The views I express are mine and have not been vetted with any organization.

First, let me thank the Times for their article regarding City Manager Mark Jinks’ decision to “pause” the award of the design contract for the new multi-use pool at Chinquapin Park Recreation Center (“Chinquapin pool renovation plans on hold,” December 8), which he also now expanded into a questioning of the need for the actual construction of the project.

But I’m not writing about my concerns about that particular decision. I’m addressing the concern I have about the decision’s impact on public-private partnerships in Alexandria — a concept city council favors to stretch our tax dollars.

I have been a strong proponent of such partnerships. I worked with the city as part of the Miracle League of Alexandria’s effort to build the Kelley Cares Miracle Field at the Lee Center and the Ruthanne Lodato Playground, also at the Lee Center.

I helped the Alexandria Police Foundation with the build- ing of the memorial at the Alexandria Police Department headquarters. And I have spent the last four years working in partnership with the city to improve aquatics offerings in Alexandria.

I have been quoted in press releases for the city’s Parknership program as endorsing the concept of public-private partnerships. But I have changed my mind.

The city manager’s unilateral decision to halt the progress of the new Chinquapin pool makes me question the wisdom of having such partnerships. For the Miracle Field and the Lodato Playground, we had a wonderful relation- ship with City Hall. City council and city staff were on board with the concept.

When there was a problem, we would sit down with councilors or staff and work out a solution, which often resulted in the private sector funding more of the project, but also understanding why that had to be done.

With the Chinquapin pool project, the city made a decision on its own to halt the project and then informed its private sector partner — not exactly my idea of a “partnership.”

Particularly when that private sector partner had worked closely with them for four years; had a signed memorandum of understanding with the city; helped reduce the projected cost by 25 percent; educated city staff on the intricacies of large, multi-use pools; spent hundreds of hours on the project; and went to the community to convince residents that the city could be trusted on this project.

And it took close to all of those four years to win over the populace. The city had closed more than half of the pools in Alexandria; it had virtually eliminated capital spending on pools; its own consultant said many of the open pools were deteriorating rapidly and that current facilities only met 20 percent of the residents’ needs.

This was on top of the city building the current Chinquapin pool back in 1985 to the wrong measurements. T.C. Williams cannot even host a swim meet there because it is not regulation size. Despite all that, opinion was changing through our partnership. City council helped lead the way with their commitment of funding last May.

And guess what — the city manager’s decision has wiped much of that out. The city’s credibility has taken a hit; city council’s credibility has taken a hit; and so has that of its private sector partner.

It sends the message that you can work with an organization on the same project for four years, gain the full support of city council, secure funding, and then — within days of the contract award — everything stops.

I’m at the point where I have gone from the biggest supporter of public-private partnerships to now want- ing to tell any organization not to enter into such an arrangement with the city.

A partnership is built on trust and trust is a two-way street. But not in Alexandria. My hope is that city council can right this wrong and force the construction of the needed pool and restore my faith in public-private partnerships.