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Park Authority Reduces Staff, Rethinks Role

N.Va. Regional Revenue Declines

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page B01

Citing declining revenue and a need to reorganize financial resources, officials with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority have laid off three employees and set about redefining its mission.

The cutbacks come at a time when officials are struggling to cope with shrinking park revenue, which they trace as far back as the sniper attacks in October 2002, an event that chased park patrons off the diamonds and fairways and back to the relative safety of their homes.

Parks official David C. Hobson says some losses "occurred years ago." (Jules Kitzerow)

"They wouldn't go on a golf course or play ball," said William C. Dickinson, chairman of the authority. "Everyone thought they were next. . . . That cost us" -- as did the wet springs that followed and the meteorological crescendo of 2003 that was Hurricane Isabel.

Officials said that rather than rush to raise user fees, they have decided to cut down on extras, which in part meant eliminating five filled positions. Two of the employees probably will be hired back to fill vacancies, officials said.

"We decided we had to do some belt-tightening and restructuring," Dickinson said. "We found some positions that were superfluous. It's painful, because human beings were involved."

Among the employees whose jobs were eliminated was spokeswoman Carol Ann Cohen, 58, who has been with the authority for 21 years. Cohen said she got the news April 8 when she was offered early retirement.

"The reason we were given was that they had to deal with the deficit," Cohen said. "We've been working like crazy to make up for the losses" created by the weather and the snipers.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority operates 19 regional parks in the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church and in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Since its founding, the authority has preserved more than 10,000 acres, much of it along the Potomac River shoreline.

Although each locality pays to support the authority according to its share of the area's population, about 79 percent of the authority's $14 million operating budget comes from user fees.

That, officials say, is why good weather is so critical to the authority's financial well-being and why recent circumstances have forced the authority to dip into its reserves to balance its budget. Another problem, officials said, is the growing number of golf courses in the Washington area. There are too many to sustain the number of golfers, which hasn't grown, Dickinson said.

"It's a combination of the weather, competition, possibly excess capacity . . . at golf courses," said David C. Hobson, the authority's acting executive director. "These effects have been cumulative. Some of those revenue losses occurred years ago, but you don't necessarily catch up."

It has been a time of considerable transition for the authority, whose previous chairman, Walter L. Mess, 90, stepped down in December after 30 years at the helm. Earlier that month, the authority's executive director, Gary Fenton, resigned to work for the National Recreation and Park Association.

Officials said the changes offer a logical point to re-craft the authority's mission. The authority has not had a strategic plan since 1991, Dickinson said, and some of the procedures and technologies employed by the parks are so antiquated that he could not provide an accurate estimate of annual park visits.

"Who are we?" Dickinson asked rhetorically. "Where are we going, where are we growing? That will be an order of business with the new executive director."

In the meantime, given the gradual decline in revenue, officials said they decided it was time to better utilize their resources.

One change, they said, will be the addition of a senior marketing person to help promote park facilities and increase visitation and revenue.

"We realized that this is not a sustainable course," Dickinson said. "We're on a plateau, and unless we do something very different, we will go into a slow decline. We have to come up with new gigs, new revenue generators or increase the number of people who use our facilities, or we'll be in the same bind next year and the following years."

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