NOVA Parks incurs net loss from Cameron Run, releases strategic plan

NOVA Parks incurs net loss from Cameron Run, releases strategic plan
NOVA Parks’ recently released strategic plan includes partnering with the City of Alexandria to discuss the future of Cameron Run. (Photo/NOVA Parks)

By Olivia Anderson |

How to optimize the use of Cameron Run Regional Park is an issue that has bedeviled Alexandria residents, city staff and elected leaders for years.

City Council considered wresting control of the 26-acre tract of open space away from the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority back in 2017, but instead opted to renew the city’s pact with the regional entity for another decade. Though improvements have been made in recent years and use of the facility has expanded to winter as well as summer, opinion is still divided on where long-term control of the park should reside.

Alexandria city staff are preparing to engage with residents to receive input on long-term plans for the park, while NVRPA’s recently released 2023-2027 Strategic Plan also includes a stated goal of engaging the “public in visioning the future of Cameron Run in coordination with the City by 2025.”

Located at 4001 Eisenhower Ave., Cameron Run features offerings such as miniature golf, batting cages, picnic shelters and Great Waves Waterpark. As of 2018, the park also offers a winter event called Ice and Lights, an outdoor experience open from November to January that includes light displays and an ice skating rink.

While Cameron Run is popular and serves more than 100,000 people per year, its history also involves hiccups. Last year, for instance, 60,000 gallons of chlorine from Great Waves Waterpark accidentally flooded the nearby Lake Cook, killing multiple animal species and resuscitating a larger conversation about the park’s management and future.

Currently NOVA Parks oversees Cameron Run, but several years ago City Council considered pulling the plug on the regional facility and using it for something else entirely. Originally established in 1981, the lease between the city and NOVA Parks was set to expire in 2021. NOVA Parks then requested a 40-year extension in 2017 in order to implement more than $7.5 million in improvements, including a lazy river and dog park. Although council denied the 40-year extension, it approved an extension in 2018 through December 2028.

During those discussions, the Park and Recreation Commission advised that the city should assume management of the park once its lease ends in 2028. According to Gina Baum, who served on the commission from 2011 to 2022 – three years of which were as chair, many community members came forward during that time expressing concerns regarding a perceived lack of general maintenance at the site and the fact that it did not generate revenue for the city and its residents.

A townhome community adjacent to Great Waves, called Townes at Cameron Parke, reported multiple incidents of water park visitors parking in their driveways and garbage being dumped in the park behind the townhomes. The commission also received complaints that NOVA Parks removed important tree species and allowed invasive species to thrive, Baum said.

Additionally, at the time Cameron Park only offered summer activities, leaving some residents frustrated with the park’s lack of off-season use.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints from the community,” Baum said. “… We just got too much feedback from the community that there were issues with [NOVA Parks] being the stewards of that land.”

Since those initial discussions, NOVA Parks has implemented winter events, such as Ice and Lights, to utilize the space year-round. The city also acquired the parcel behind the townhome community and transformed it into Lake Cook, thus mitigating much of the garbage dumping.

While Baum acknowledged that Cameron Run is in better shape than it was several years ago, she still believes the city should take back the land and invest in community resources. One idea is creating a 50-meter swimming pool, Baum suggested; another might be an indoor field.

“Hopefully it’s getting better. I know people are happier with the skating rink and the lights, but again, it’s still a huge piece of land and it’s not getting its highest and best use right now, that’s for sure,” she said.

Over the past year, NOVA Parks has invested $398,219 in structural improvements toward the wave pool and nearly $98,816 to Ice and Lights, according to Paul Gilbert, NOVA Parks’ executive director.

After subtracting the total park capital expenses, totaling $497,035, from the net operating income, totaling $168,653, Cameron Run incurred a net loss of approximately $328,382 in the past year, Gilbert said.

“Now, that’s not a bad thing. We’re making a really wonderful park that serves more than 100,000 people a year. That’s a very good thing,” Gilbert said.

In the coming year Gilbert said that NOVA Parks anticipates spending around $255,000 in renovations to the smaller, low-depth play pool and at least $75,000 on Ice and Lights.

There were several stated goals that accompanied the lease extension in 2018. The first was to implement Ice and Lights, which happened one year before it was required and has been growing ever since, Gilbert noted. Another was to build a small rectangular field and sports court in the corner of the parking lot that can be used year-round. This project, which the City of Alexandria will manage, is currently in the works.

The newly released strategic plan calls for NOVA Parks to engage with the city regarding the future of Cameron Run by 2025. According to Gilbert, that date was driven by the lease’s 2028 expiration date and recognizes that whatever plan the two parties decide on might take a few years to implement.

Between the batting cages, mini golf, water park, climbing structure and winter events, Gilbert opined that Cameron Run is serving the public well and will only improve with the plan.

“That’s a lot of issues packed into that space and it’s year-round. So I suspect it will be difficult to find a combination of activities that will be more impactful than we have right now. That certainly is an issue for future planning with the city,” Gilbert said.

Although the city will talk with NOVA Parks to discuss the park’s future by 2025, that also marks the year it will begin a planning process with the community to determine Cameron Run’s priorities. The planning process will establish a budget in the event that council does not renew NOVA Parks’ lease come 2028.

According to Jack Browand, deputy director of the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, this planning process will ensure that the city is set up for success in whatever direction it decides, including the possible “nuclear option” of shift ing management.

“If NOVA Parks was no longer to operate it, the city would have a plan in place and the funding available to move forward, whether that’s operated as it is, completely deconstructed to be something entirely different,” Browand said. “And, on the other end, it could be that the best use of that space is to manage it the way that it is.”

As of now, it is unclear what the future of Cameron Run looks like beyond 2028. Some have argued that Alexandria should assume operations once the lease ends, and others argue that NOVA Parks has stepped up and is successfully managing the space.

Browand pointed out that if the city were to take over and deconstruct the site, it would have to be modified significantly. What NOVA Parks built over the past 40 years would not be able to be replicated exactly, due to various cost and infrastructure restrictions.

He also highlighted that several years ago the city came up with several potential alternatives to the use of Cameron Run, ranging from tearing the park down entirely and returning it to its natural state to implementing ball fields. All of these options reached concept-level and their estimated costs range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. However, NOVA Parks has held up its end of the deal since council extended its lease in 2018.

“They have lived up to the agreements that we made for the allowances for either them to implement programs that utilize the facility throughout the year, or allowing the city the opportunity to go in. Those have all been honored,” Browand said.

NOVA Parks and the city have not engaged in preliminary talks about the park’s future just yet, but Gilbert anticipates that the conversations will take place soon. As for the city’s planning process, next steps will be based on council and community priorities.

While the site’s best use is unclear – whether that’s an indoor recreation center, outdoor pool, housing space or kept as is – Browand said that the right decision will reveal itself with time and more conversations. Right now, it’s just too early to tell.

“It’s too far off. We’re two fiscal years away from starting the process,” Browand said. “There’s been a lot that’s been going on since [the initial discussions] and I think there’s still a lot to be determined as to what our needs will be two years from now.”