A majority of the McLean Community Center board held a highly unusual Sunday meeting to discuss whether to halt plans to spend their $12 million surplus building a downtown facility.
The consensus at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour informal session appeared to be: the downtown project should be halted for now.
The board, which has accumulated the surplus by collecting more in taxpayer dollars than were needed to operate the center, has attempted for several years to replace the Old Firehouse Teen center with either a black box theater or a gym.
Earlier this year the board hired the real estate company of Jones Lang and paid the company nearly $40,000 to help them with a development proposal that is still secret.
Board chair Kevin Dent called the Sunday meeting to consider if they are going in the right direction on downtown. As board member Chad Quinn said it was really about what to do with the $12 million surplus.
Here are five highlights from the wide-ranging discussion attended by Dent, Susan Bourgeois, Sean Dunn, Jay Howell, Craig Richardson, Quinn and Robin Walker.
1. How did a board organized to run the McLean Community Center get involved in talking about a new development in downtown McLean?
Dent said it began in 2009 when developer Dan Montgomery, who owns the Giant shopping center and other major properties in the heart of downtown, announced plans to redevelop the shopping center as a modern downtown for McLean.
The community center leases the nearly Old Firehouse from Fairfax County. Supervisor John Foust, who has long been interested in redeveloping downtown, setup meetings between Montgomery, the community center board and county planners. Downtown McLean is a county-designated redevelopment area.
Then the recession hit. Montgomery, president of the Clark Construction Co, developer of several town centers and one of the savviest developers in the area, told Foust in July 2010 he was dropping the redevelopment plans.
By September, the community center board was talking about hiring a consultant and paying them up to $100,00 to determine if the community center could go it alone building something at the site of the Old Firehouse Teen Center.
One problem: the site was not large enough for adequate parking.
2. The assumptions underlying a downtown plan have changed over the years.
The board has spent a great deal of money in the past year fixing up the Old Firehouse, Dent and board members said.
The developer-partner said no. The MCC board have been considering building a black box theatre since 2007 and now there are several in the area.
“The set of assumptions that made downtown so attractive are not the same now in 2011. ... That makes me pause on why the rush to do downtown without the matched energy of a developer that could make this a showcase,” Quinn said.
Board member Jay Howell: “My thinking at that time was that it (downtown) was going to happen. My thinking now is when is it going to happen? ... Are the assumptions (now) the same as then, and the answer is no. Everyone is saying it’s way down the road.”
“For us doing it alone, I’m having a lot more reservations about it," he said. “I would wait until the development around the old teen center is ready.”
Susan Bourgeois: “We don’t want to be the lone wolf.”
3. Robin Walker reacts to her colleagues.
“We should have made this decision first," she said. "We’ve spent all this money on Jones Lang.”
Dent: ”We didn’t have the information we needed then. We have the information now and we’re making a decision.”
Walker then said, “I’m shocked that I'm hearing this today” — the sentiment to put the downtown plans on hold.
“I think it’s too quick to do this. I think we are jumping too far ahead,” she said.
4. Last week the board received a staff report that a new downtown facility would operate at a $1 million deficit a year.
“I don’t want to go downtown and build an expensive faciilty that will blow the surplus and cost a $1 million a year,” Richardson said.
Dent: “It is only prudent that we step back and look at our plan now.”
5. Several board members asked how do they hold onto the surplus, that many citizens have questioned, if they delay a downtown project.
The McLean Citizens Association is discussing a proposal to ask the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to lower the tax rate passed by the community center board by 50 percent as a way to refunding part of the surplus to residents.
The Fairfax Supervisors, through Dranesville Supervisor John Foust, officially approve the community center’s budget and tax rate.
Next step: The full community center board will talk about the surplus and downtown at its Dec. 14 meeting. Two senior board members were absent from Sunday's meeting: Finance Committee chair David Sanders and Capital Facilities Commttee chair Risa Sanders. (They are not related.)
These two chairs held a joint meeting last week to look at the costs of running a new facility that would need a $1 million subsidy.