Amid the tilled farmland and rolling pastures of western Prince William County, an irrigated, manicured, laser-graded sports complex is rising. When the project is completed this spring, five lighted softball diamonds will be open for play.
Although Valley View Park will also include six high-quality soccer fields, backers say its real promise lies in the softball facilities, with their five concession stands and indoor bathrooms. All will be a draw for tournaments featuring teams from around the globe.
Such tournament-level sports venues do not come cheap, however, and Valley View Park is $2.2 million over budget in part because of the softball design and mismanagement by the Prince William Park Authority, the agency that built it, officials say.
In a county that struggles to fund recreation for its growing population, the park's cost has drawn scrutiny and criticism.
Questions have also surfaced about possible benefits that the park could bring to a member of the park authority board that conceived it. To add to the controversy, officials recently discovered that authority workers have had a pro-football gambling pool, which is prohibited by law in public offices.
All of those concerns have prompted Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) and others to consider abolishing the semi-autonomous authority and replacing it with a county department to run parks and recreation under the control of the county supervisors, like any other service.
Officials said they are uneasy about the Valley View project because the high-end design of its softball fields was pushed by park authority board member R.B. Thomas Jr. of Brentsville, who runs softball tournaments and could benefit from the facilities. Moreover, critics say, tournaments will primarily draw out-of-county adults when fast-growing Prince William needs many more soccer fields than the six included at Valley View to meet the demand from its youth.
Valley View "wasn't meant to be for these huge softball tournaments when we had an existing need" for soccer fields, said Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan). "I think we're on some level out of touch with the needs for the community and forging ahead down roads we shouldn't be going down."
Prince William established the authority in 1977 as an independent agency with the right to sell bonds with county approval. The authority operates 71 facilities and draws about $11 million of its approximately $20 million annual budget from the county. The rest comes from user fees and grants. The authority chooses how to spend all of it.
The authority has been criticized for mismanagement several times in the past, and Connaughton said he is pushing to dissolve the agency because of his doubts "that anything less than major surgery will get us where we need to be." He said he would introduce the measure within the next few weeks.
At least four other supervisors have said they would support such a move, though others have vowed they would fight it.
Valley View grew out of a 1998 ballot measure that authorized $3 million for a soccer and softball complex. Current and former park officials said that a simpler $3 million plan was scrapped after Thomas argued for a championship-style softball complex similar to those he had seen elsewhere.
His fellow authority board members agreed with the concept. "Apparently, he must have really convinced us it was a great need," said board member Brenda Gardziel of Dumfries.
Thomas runs two softball tournaments each year. They attract 50 to 100 teams each and are held at a handful of Prince William parks and sometimes at facilities in Fairfax County, he said. The new fields at Valley View and similar ones at Sudley Park will attract more teams to the tournaments and help ensure their success, Thomas said.
The budget for one of the tournaments, run by Thomas's nonprofit International Senior Softball Association, was $126,030 in 2002, according to documents he provided. The money comes from registration fees and tourism grants, and all of it was used to promote and run the tournament, Thomas said. He said he takes no fees from the tournaments or for running the association.
Thomas and other park authority members defend the softball complexes, the tournaments and concessions as money magnets for county tourism and the authority. Thomas said he pushed for more elaborate softball diamonds at Valley View for the benefit of residents, not his own tournaments.
Supervisor Loring B. "Ben" Thompson (R-Brentsville), whose district includes Valley View, appointed Thomas, a civil engineer, to the authority. "With R.B. Thomas and his appointment to the park authority board," Thompson said, "I see absolutely no conflict with his running the senior softball tournaments."
Peggy Thompson, executive director of the authority, agreed that the parks would make some money from tournaments but expressed misgivings. "There is a real value there," she said, "but whether that is something that is a need or not is another question."
Many of the cost overruns and problems at Valley View, she said, are attributable to authority members' decisions to seek the more elaborate design. She also faulted the authority for other problems at Valley View, including lax project management and the need for $750,000 worth of new topsoil. But she said she is following a consultant's recommendations to reform the agency.
"I don't think dissolving the park authority for punitive or reactionary reasons is a strong way to lead," Thompson said.
Some county officials remain uneasy not only about Thomas's role at Valley View, but about the disclosure last year that he is also managing the construction of another facility, Sudley Park, that will host softball and soccer tournaments. A recent tour of Sudley led by Thomas showed that the softball fields have been graded and construction will begin soon. No work has begun on the soccer fields.
Work at Sudley also sparked criticism last year because the grading and excavating company where Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville) works is allowed to dump its surplus dirt on the site.
Those who want to do away with the authority said the discovery of the office football pool was a final, unsettling example of why they have lost faith in the agency.
Park authority spokeswoman Beth Robertson said that two dozen or more employees were participating in the pool but that "no one has profited by running it, and no one knew it was illegal."
Robertson said the pool was stopped as soon as county officials brought it to the attention of senior staff.