In the mid-1960s the State of Virginia began purchasing hundreds of acres of woodlands in southern Fairfax County for what was to be a major state-operated park in the Washington suburbs.
By 1967 the acquistion job was complete. The state had acquired 1,804 acres of land of the Mason Neck peninsula, much of it adjacent to Gunston Hall, the restored home of George Mason, a colonial patriot.
But then Virginia, in what many Northern Virginia politicians claim is typical of the state's attitude toward Northern Virginia, did nothing.
Now - a decade later - Virginia is ready to begin developing that park, if the state's voters approve a portion of a $125 million bond issue in the Nov. 8 general elections. Mason Neck State Park is one of six undeveloped state parks that Virginia would begin to open to the public with proceeds from a $5 million park bond issue.
The park bonds are among five bond proposals Virginia voters will be asked to approve in what is the second statewide general obligation bond issue since 1969 when Virginia officially abandoned decades of pay-as-you-go financing. Under that system, begun under the reign of the late U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., Virginia financed most of its major building programs out of current tax revenues or revenue bonds.
But earlier this year, after an economic recession forced the state to cut back on its present programs, the General Assembly, under prodding from Gov. Mills E. Godwin, authorized the $125 million bond issue, subject to voter approval. In addition to $5 million for parks, the bond referendum calls for spending $86.5 million for higher education, $21.5 million for prisons; $8 million for ports, and $4 million for mental health facilities.
Developing the Mason Neck State Park at a cost of $1.14 million is one of three major projects Northern Virginia will receive if both the parks and higher education portions of the bond issue are approved.
That was not enough Northern Virginia spending to satisfy some of the area's legislators, who have claimed that the area's two state-supported institutions of higher education, Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University, should have received more aid than they did in the proposal.
Even so, House Majority Leader James M. Thomson (D-Alexandria), the most outspoken critic of the bonds when approved by the legislature, has not campaigned actively against the bond. His silence has not kept conservative groups who are opposed to the bonds from invoking his bitter floor speech ("The hatred that Gov. Godwin has shown to Northern Virginia is typified by this bond proposal") in their effort to kill the issue.
Proponents of the bond issue admit to concern over the impact of Thomson's statement and what some politicians say is the widespread belief that Northern Virginia typically gets short-changed by state government spending.
It's true that most of the funds are being spent outside the Washington suburbs, said Preston C. Caruthers, an Arlington builder who is chairman of Virginians for Bonds, a pro-bond group. But there is no clamor in Northern Virginia for a state prison here and Northern Virginians are enrolled in large numbers in some of the state-supported schools that are getting more aid than the two Northern Virginia schools, he said.
"So I don't take the same narrow view that if the dollar isn't spent here we don't get a fair shake," Caruthers said in a recent interview.
Under the bond proposal, Northern Virginia Community College would receive $7,655 million for four projects and George Mason University would receive $5.8 million for a new classroom and laboratory building.
All are "critically" needed, school officials say. George Mason has instruction space for 4,600 students, but has a current enrollment of 5,552 students and its projected enrollment by 1984 is 7,355 students, according to the bond proponents.
At Northern Virginia Community College, the fastest growing of the state's community colleges, the bulk of the funds - $5.8 million - would be used for an occupational-technical academic building on the Alexandria campus. The school rents space there now and the rents are "costly" and the space is "inadequate," the pro-bond group says.
NVCC has instructional spaces for only 45 per cent of its current enrollment of 14,365 students, according to Virginians for Bonds. By 1984 its enrollment is projected to reach 18,985.
In addition to the one new building, NVCC would spend $370,000 for renovations of an existing building at the Alexandria campus, $285,000 for renovations of a building on the Annandale campus and another $1.2 million for a dental hygiene training clinic in Annandale.
Caruthers conceded that the list of items in the bond issue, approved by the General Assembly and Godwin, isn't the same list he might have developed. "But this happens to be the only list we have right now." he said.
A vote against the proposals will only delay the projects and force the state to pay higher costs on them later, he said. Inflation is pushing building costs up at a rate higher than the interest the state will have to pay on the bonds, Caruthers said.
If the park bonds are approved, the state will seek $4.5 million in federal funds to go with the park money. The State Port Authority would issue revenue bonds totalling $6.6 million to use for projects in the port of Hampton Roads if the port bonds are approved.
To date most of the opposition to the bond issues have come either from conservative groups, which oppose any debt financing, or from local groups who are opposed to specific projects. In Powhatan County, west of Richmond, there is reported to be strong opposition to the prison bonds because Powhatan is the site for a 504-inmate and medium-security prison that would cost $12.5 million.
Proponents of the bonds, led by Godwin, include virtually all of the state's major political figures.
"We're talking here of the one are Gov. Godwin, Henry Howell (the Democratic nominee for governor) and John Dalton (the Republican nominee) can agree on and I think that's rather unique," said Caruthers.
Caruthers' group, Virginians for Bonds, has begun a $114,000 promotional campaign to sell the issue with billboards, radio ads, and newspaper advertising. The ads warn that rejecting the bond proposals could lead to "higher taxes," which is precisely the same affect that opponents say passage of the bonds will bring.
The conservative opponents say the projects should be deferred until the state's current revenues are sufficient to purchase the projects. But Godwin and others say that the state cannot afford to delay construction any longer.
"Some of these buildings I am talking about have been on the drawing boards since my first administration," Godwin, who served previously as that state's chief executive from 1966-1970, has said.
"The sky will not fall" if the bonds are defeated, Caruthers said recently, "but life will not be as rich and as meaningful for many of our people."