Arlington’s county manager said Thursday that she will not award a construction contract for the controversial Long Bridge Park aquatics center as originally planned — further delaying a project that has been on hold for months after bids came in millions of dollars higher than expected.
The county will instead spend the next year seeking private funding, including the possible sale of naming rights, County Manager Barbara Donnellan said. Organizers of the U.S. Olympic Committee have approached the county to discuss use of the facility if Washington is the site of the 2024 Summer Games, county officials said.
The cost of the indoor swimming pool and fitness complex, planned to be built on a sliver of reclaimed land between freeways and railroad tracks in Crystal City, was budgeted at $79.3 million. It was to include an additional 8.5 acres of parkland, an extension of the existing esplanade and continued remediation of the site.
However, the lowest bid was “significantly higher” than expected, county officials said in January. The county has never disclosed how high the lowest acceptable bid was because it can’t compromise the bidding process, a county spokeswoman said. The bids that came in ranged from $81.9 to $82.8 million.
Arlington voters have approved $42.5 million in bonds to be used for the park’s second phase, and the county’s biggest taxpayer, developer Vornado/Charles E. Smith, donated $15 million for the facility.
The annual operating cost of the facility was estimated at $3.8 million.
Donnellan said that after she froze action on the bids in January, she and her staff talked to the lowest bidder to try to find ways to shave some costs to bring it within range of the county’s budget but were unsuccessful.
County surveys over the years indicate that public swimming pools are in high demand in Arlington, said county parks director Jane Rudolph. The three pools at the public high schools are only available when school is not in session.
The Long Bridge construction cost estimates added fuel to an ongoing civic controversy about whether Arlington, which prides itself on its fiscal prudence, has let capital spending get out of control. John Vihstadt, the first non-Democrat elected to the County Board in 15 years, rode that dissatisfaction to victory in a special election in April.
The interest from the USOC has been expressed in the past few months, county officials said. The group is expected later this month to identify which cities will be on the short list for inclusion in the U.S. bid. If built, the Long Bridge aquatics center could be used for some non-swimming water sports, County Board Chairman Jay Fisette said.
The county considered selling naming rights “until the economy took a tank” about 2008, Fisette (D) said. But the county has a history of selling naming rights or partnering with private entities to pay for public facilities, he said. He pointed to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, a baseball field in Barcroft used by George Washington University, and a Long Bridge soccer field used by Marymount University teams.
The goal, he said, is not to use any more public funds than are already committed to Long Bridge’s second phase.
“We feel we need to engage in an aggressive effort to find a funding partner and leverage outside funding,” Fisette said.
Donnellan will bring her recommendation to the County Board next year, she said. The county still intends to build the aquatics facility, she said, although it’s unclear whether it will have the same features: an Olympic-size competition pool, a teaching pool, a family leisure pool with slides and a “lazy river,” an indoor fitness area and outdoor space. Rudolph said construction would take 24 months from the time a contract is issued.