City council considers, clashes over future of Cameron Run Park

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By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]

The future of Cameron Run Regional Park on Eisenhower Avenue inspired a spirited debate at city council’s legislative meeting on Tuesday evening.

Council considered a proposal to extend by 10 years the lease that regional park authority NOVA Parks has to run the prominent West End recreational facility. The current lease for NOVA Parks will lapse in 2021. NOVA Parks had requested a 40-year lease extension, which city staff recommended against.

This comes more than a year after the city turned down NOVA Parks’ proposal to extend the Cameron Run lease by 20 years in exchange for buying the historic Murray-Dick-Fawcett house at 517 Prince St., which the city has since purchased.

NOVA Parks’ original lease in 1981 gave the parks authority control of 53 acres, for which the organization paid the city $10. It now controls about 26 acres. The proposed 10-year lease would reduce NOVA Parks’ size to 14.6 acres, giving the city control of the Cameron Run Park lake and wooded area that has not been developed. It also calls for NOVA Parks to pay the city $200,000 annually.

Since starting to manage the park facility, NOVA Parks has built profit-generating facilities, including Great Waves Waterpark, a mini golf facility and batting cages. Those facilities are, however, seasonal, leaving the park unused between November and March.

The city doesn’t receive a cut of NOVA Parks’ revenue from the site.

A report from the Parks & Recreation Commission concluded the city should plan to
take over management from the parks authority when the proposed lease expires in 2028. The report said the lease isn’t in the best interests of Alexandria residents, citing NOVA Parks’ lack of rent or revenue sharing with the city, the lack of enforcement mechanisms at the city’s disposal for maintenance issues and the lack of access to off-season use. Instead, the report said the park would be best utilized if converted to a city-controlled recreational facility, which could generate revenue.

Given budget constraints for FY2019, though, the report said the ten-year lease with NOVA Parks, while not ideal, would allow the city to get through its “significant shortterm financial constraints,” including planned infrastructure projects.

“In order to get from here to the end vision what is proposed is a replacement lease
until 2028 … We don’t have significant capital funds to add, as we’ve all discussed,” City Manager Mark Jinks said at the meeting. “Ten years gets us beyond that.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, however, said the replacement lease was not the best solution, while Councilor Paul Smedberg said putting a timeline on the city’s decision would prompt more conversation on best uses.

“I personally would do less than 10 years, but I know that’s probably not a consensus.
I’m comfortable with what you [Parks & Recreation Commission] and the city manager are putting forward,” Smedberg said. “I would really hate to see it go beyond that, personally, because I really do think it’s an opportunity for the city …”

Jinks, however, said the city won’t be prepared in 2021 to make the kind of investment Cameron Run Park’s conversion needs.

“If this facility is converted, the range of costs to transition from a park type of operation to an athletic facility goes from $30 to $34 million. We’re not in the position to take on something like that immediately,” Jinks said. “Ten years seems like a reasonable time period for them to get use out of it and for us to make the transition in 2028.”

Wilson argued the city should wait until closer to the current lease’s expiration and then evaluate what the best deal is.

“I don’t think there’s anything about the discussion we had last weekend with our task force as well as what we all know about the state of our CIP and cognizant about what is unfunded in our CIP that leads me to believe we’re going to be in a dramatically different place to swallow something of that magnitude,” Wilson said. “I’m still a little concerned that, even with a decade, we’re going to come back here … and not be in a much better place and then have kind of lost a decade at the site. I totally buy into the end goal … I guess I’m questioning the path there and if this provides that path there.”

Wilson said, even if NOVA Parks was amenable to the proposed rent, that $200,000 per year would be a “drop in the bucket” in comparison to the city’s renovation costs.

Wilson said another third party operator might be in the best interest of the city.
He posited why consideration hasn’t been given to allowing the lease to expire and putting an RFP out for Cameron Run Park at that point.

“I guess the question for me is ‘is there a better way to either in partnership with the regional park authority or not in partnership with the regional park authority to stair
step an incremental approach to implementing the ultimate vision?’” Wilson said. “I don’t see anything in the plan that gets there in the next 10 years. It puts us in a place where 10 years from now we’ll … be right back where we are right now, but with facility that is 10 years more aged and at best $2 million over a decade of investment. That doesn’t seem
like a lot and doesn’t seem any closer to where we want to be.”

Director of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department Jim Spangler said redevelopment of the park will be a slow process, and that there should be careful consideration as to how Cameron Run Park will ultimately fit into plans for Eisenhower Avenue’s development.

“The concern in the 10 year plan is how fast this corridor will develop. You’ve heard the announcement of additional investment in this area tonight I believe. From the staff’s standpoint, this is seen as how important Ben Brenman Park [is] to the Duke Street corridor. This holdsthe same importance for Eisenhower corridor,” Spangler
said. “It’s not developed in one moment, but over time.”

Smedberg said NOVA Parks didn’t have a history of improving Cameron Run Park. He said he agreed with city staff’s proposal, saying the city would be missing an opportunity by not planning to take over management.

“The need is there now for that site to be used at much higher use than it is now, period and end of story … I understand there’s no room in the capital budget and things like that, but until we set that date certain, nothing is going to happen, and if we set off on [a] 20 year plan to think about this it’s going to keep rolling just like it’s been and nothing is going to change.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor Paul Smedberg clashed over what the process for Cameron Run Park should be at the Nov. 14 legislative meeting (Courtesy City of Alexandria)

Wilson and Smedberg clashed on what the proposal would mean for the city’s ability to plan out the future of Cameron Run Park.

“We have built great momentum up with commission’s work and with the significant amount of money we invested in the consultant and community engagement,” Wilson
said. “Let’s not now pause that and wait several years to make a final decision on what the future of that is. Let’s get to a place where we can make a decision about what our vision is for that site.”

Smedberg said the proposal wouldn’t stop the process.

“I do not see how you can make that statement because I do not see making a decision like this as stopping the process. I see this as kick starting the process … I think this could really kick start a great conversation about what we want on there. They’re not mutually exclusive,” Smedberg said.

Mayor Allison Silberberg said council needed to give the public time to consider best uses of Cameron Run Park. She said she agreed with Wilson a decision should be made on long-term uses, but said there should be more public engagement before the discussion is had.

“I think this is a pretty big step in and of itself, but we can also think about what is possible here. We’ve had a lot of civic engagement, but we can have more, but we we haven’t had our public hearing yet,” Silberberg said. “…People need time to absorb this. We’ve had time because we deal with this. We have all these emails and meetings and reports … We need to give the public some time to catch up.”

Jinks suggested several alternatives to the proposal, including shortening the length
of the proposed lease.

City council voted unanimously to send the proposal forward, and it’s docketed for a public hearing on Dec. 16.

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