The idea was simple. Two small Northern Virginia neighbors were struggling with the high costs of building indoor swimming pools large enough to host events for competitive swim teams. Why shouldn’t Arlington County and Alexandria build one together and share the costs?
Two years later, the partnership lies nearly abandoned, the victim of differing community goals, timing and pride of location. While Arlington is forging ahead on its own, taking bids on a $42 million Long Bridge multiple-pool, fitness and health facility, Alexandria postponed its $22 million plan to add on to Chinquapin Recreation Center because of other critical needs for schools, Metro and sewers.
If both pools were built, they would be just 5.2 miles apart.
As business leaders are calling for Washington-area jurisdictions to join to solve intractable problems, the failure of these two neighbors to collaborate on pool needs could cost their taxpayers millions in duplicated services.
“Without knowing all the details, this tiff epitomizes the provincial mind-set of too many of our leaders,” said Bob Buchanan, founder of the 2030 Group, a business-oriented organization that advocates for regional cooperation. “We as a region . . . have a real inability to face hard facts.”
Elected leaders in both communities — which already coordinate emergency responses and some transportation planning — say joining forces on a pool simply didn’t work out.
“We work together on so many different initiatives, and we’ll continue to do so,” said Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg (D). “No deal fell through, because there was no specific proposal made.”
“I don’t know how far along any conversation got about the specifics of a final partnership,” said Jay Fisette (D), chair of the Arlington County Board. “I still think there’s an opportunity in the future to be discussed.”
It didn’t have to be this way.
In 2014 and 2015, the governments of both inside-the-Beltway suburbs were trying to respond to residents’ calls for a 50-meter public pool that could accommodate competition swim meets. Both have outdoor recreational pools, and both are members of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which operates multiple pools and water parks in the region. None, however, are regulation-sized competition pools.
Costs stymied both communities, but for different reasons.
Alexandria, a historic burg of 140,000 people, had seven aging municipal pools as recently as six years ago — none the right length or depth for competitive swim meets. Now, three have closed and another is under repair.
The swim team for the city’s sole public high school, T.C. Williams, which adjoins Chinquapin, can’t use the existing pool because of its size, so it shuttles to facilities at different schools in Fairfax County to swim.
A group called Advocates for Alexandria Aquatics pushed for reinvesting in the city’s pools, including calling for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning repairs and replacing broken lights. The advocates formed a public-private partnership to contribute $2.5 million toward the estimated $22.5 million cost of adding a regulation-sized pool onto Chinquapin.
When the cost estimates jumped to $30 million, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) suggested exploring a partnership with larger Arlington, which was struggling to build its Long Bridge aquatics center, just up Route 1.
Arlington, with about 227,000 residents, had built indoor pools at each of its three public high schools. But there is so much demand for pool time there that in 2012, voters overwhelmingly agreed to the construction of an aquatics center at the reclaimed land known as Long Bridge Park, tucked between Interstate 95 and CSX Railroad tracks near Reagan National Airport.
A little more than a year later, construction costs ballooned by millions of dollars, and the county halted the plans. Hope that a sponsor would materialize if the Washington region won a bid evaporated when the bid didn’t happen.
Meanwhile, John Vihstadt (I), the first non-Democrat elected to the County Board in 15 years, won two 2014 elections based in part on dissatisfaction with the costs of the pool complex. Arlington activists were divided: Some fought for new pools, while others demanded better cost controls.
It was in this atmosphere that the city and the county agreed in August 2015 to talk about collaborating on a single facility at Long Bridge Park.
“We’re dipping our toe in the waters,” Mark Schwartz, Arlington’s county manager, said at the time.
A city poll that fall showed that 52 percent of Alexandria residents were either very supportive or somewhat supportive of partnering with Arlington on a pool at Long Bridge Park, but only half as many were willing to support new pool construction with their tax dollars. An Arlington poll showed that almost 63 percent of residents were very or somewhat supportive of sharing the pool with their neighbors.
Participants from both jurisdictions recall several meetings over about a year. They are sketchy on the details, though Alexandrians were clearly reluctant to use tax dollars for a pool that would be in a neighboring jurisdiction. And Arlingtonians argued that they already had financing for the pool at Long Bridge.
Arlington “wanted our money, but they wanted to build it there,” said Carolyn Griglione, who is on the Alexandria aquatics board. “We said ‘No, we want the pool here in Alexandria for our residents. . . . We’ll build it here at Chinquapin and your folks can use it, because we’re more centrally located.’ ”
There were “high-level discussions,” said Emily Baker, Alexandria’s deputy city manager. “But those discussions did not lead to the development of a specific proposal. In both jurisdictions, the pool-use demand is such that many view the best outcome as not ‘either-or’ but ‘both’ as a good solution.”
Erik Beach, Arlington’s planning and comprehensive projects studio director, said it was Alexandria that pulled out of the discussions. “It was about Alexandria money for Alexandrians,” he said. “After several meetings . . . they thought they could make it work at Chinquapin.”
Alexandria council members decided informally, without ever killing or approving the joint effort, to instead move forward on the Chinquapin project, Wilson said.
“The concept of regionalism is a good one to pursue,” said James Spengler, the city’s director of recreation, parks and cultural activities. “But so much effort has to be expended to overcome inertia that it doesn’t always work out.”
The Alexandria booster club began collecting donor pledges for its share of the rebuilt Chinquapin pool, and city employees started planning a $1.4 million design contract.
But in December, Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks announced that the Chinquapin expansion was on hold to allow the city to address “enormous challenges” in infrastructure.
The aquatics advocates were furious. The pool expansion now sits on the city’s supplemental capital improvement plan, and no one will predict the likelihood of it getting underway anytime soon.
In Arlington, meanwhile, a county-appointed citizen’s committee last spring proposed moving ahead with a smaller pool complex at Long Bridge that would keep the total cost to about $64 million, compared with construction bids that topped $80 million when the project was shelved in 2014.
Last month, Arlington officials said they would seek design bids for the scaled-down complex this summer, hoping to start construction in late 2018.
Again, Vihstadt is injecting a note of caution. The estimated costs of operating a Long Branch pool have not been updated in two years, he said, and efforts to secure corporate sponsorships or partnerships with colleges, universities or nonprofits, haven’t borne fruit. Arlington’s budget is tight, and next year might be even more fiscally challenging.
The idea of a joint facility at Long Bridge might not be completely dead. Although Alexandria officials would not speculate, Arlington officials remain open to the idea of a joint effort.
Beach, the Arlington planning official, said there have been several more meetings about the pools since December, when Alexandria paused its planning work on Chinquapin.
“We are moving forward,” Fisette said. “Alexandria still has a decision to make.”