Alexandria’s City Council is considering whether to pull the plug on one of the region’s most popular water parks, which draws more than 100,000 customers every summer.
A citizen advisory group says the city, which faces a tight budget, looming capital costs and growing demands for athletic fields and facilities, could generate revenue and serve its own residents better by replacing Great Waves Waterpark with a year-round indoor or outdoor recreational facility.
The proposal, and a related discussion about whether Alexandria should remain a member of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, could cause a fissure in the nearly 60-year-old regional alliance, concerning leaders of other jurisdictions that are members.
“This is a little troubling because this partnership has existed for decades and it’s been good for everyone,” said Penny Gross (D), a Fairfax County supervisor whose district adjoins Alexandria. “When a jurisdiction starts talking about pulling out, it really damages the fabric of the community. Nova Parks is really a benefit to everybody.”
Jay Fisette (D), chairman of the Arlington County Board, said the parks authority “adds value to every member. Any potential change is of interest to us.”
Last year, the City Council asked its Parks and Recreation Commission, an advisory panel made up of residents, to look into whether another 40-year lease to the regional parks authority to operate Great Waves Waterpark was the best use of the city’s 26-acre Cameron Run property.
The panel concluded that the current lease, which expires in June 2021, “is not in the best interests of the city of Alexandria. The limited season use leaves the park unavailable for . . . the majority of the year and neither the lease nor the seasonal use provides revenue to the city.”
The city pays about $664,000 in annual dues to the regional parks authority. Cameron Run is one of the authority’s biggest moneymakers, generating about $700,000 beyond its operating costs, which helps support the authority’s 32 parks, golf courses and other sites, including the historic Carlyle House in Alexandria.
Stella Koch, chairwoman of the Nova Parks board, said more than half of the excess revenue goes toward Carlyle House, thus providing a direct benefit to the city.
In a letter to the City Council, Koch said that the board is willing to consider a shorter-term lease while the city ponders its next steps. She also noted that if the city takes back the Cameron Run property, it would have to spend its own money to redevelop it into a different type of facility.
“We were ready to spend some money on upgrades to the facility, but obviously that’s contingent on having a lease,” Koch said in an interview. “The reality is if they take [the property] back, they’re going to have to come up with all the resources to build something else.”
Alexandria is facing an expensive sewer replacement project as well as higher costs for Metro and the loss of the Transportation Security Administration headquarters to Springfield, in neighboring Fairfax. At the same time, the portion of the city where the water park is located is undergoing considerable redevelopment, with about 10,000 new residents expected by 2040.
With recreational space already scarce, Alexandria’s parks commission said Cameron Run’s land could be better used as a year-round indoor complex or outdoor fields, playing courts and trails, which would generate revenue for the city from user fees.
The council has asked City Manager Mark Jinks for a formal recommendation, which could come as soon as this week. Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) said she would want public input before voting on any proposal.
“Every park we have, and how it is utilized, is a critical discussion,” Silberberg said. “I’m keeping an open mind.”
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said that “if the city were to take back the property, it’s not likely we would have hundreds of millions of dollars to develop it.”
The tension between Alexandria and Nova Parks began about three years ago, when the parks authority sought to extend its lease another 40 years in exchange for building a new waterslide. The city turned that offer down.
In 2016, Nova Parks sought a 20-year lease extension in exchange for the purchase of a historic house in Old Town. After delaying the decision a few months, the city ended up buying the historic house itself, with grants from several foundations.
Nova Parks was formed in 1959 to protect water sources, conserve open spaces and create areas where people could enjoy the outdoors. Alexandria joined in the 1960s.
Bill Dickinson, who represented Alexandria on the board from 1997 to 2009, said the city begged the parks authority to put Great Waves at Cameron Run starting in the 1970s, because they wanted to draw people to what was then an unappealing, mostly industrial area.