Equity concerns pauses county’s push to develop sports tourism facilities

Kids play soccer on a synthetic turf (via Fairfax County Park Authority)

Concerns over equity and the recommendation of specific sites have delayed Fairfax County’s push into sports tourism.

At last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Springfield District Supervisor Pat Herrity proposed that the county start advertising that it’s seeking proposals from private entities to develop sports tourism facilities.

However, he pulled the motion when it became clear that there wasn’t enough support from other supervisors to move forward. When he made the request in May, the board voted instead to have staff reassess a consultant’s report to ensure equity is considered when evaluating future projects.

“We’ve been sitting on the sidelines far too long. It’s time for us to get in the game or not,” Herrity said. “This is something the board has clearly expressed that it would benefit both our sports community, our taxpayers, our hotelers, our restaurants, our hospitality industry. We need to move forward and stop trying to find ways not to do it.”

Board Chairman Jeff McKay argued that Herrity, in fact, had “delayed the process.”

“I want to make it crystal clear that this board supports sports tourism…What we are doing is trying clean up the fact that it wasn’t done right,” he said. “Equity was left behind.”

A consultant hired by the county released a report in August 2020 recommending how the county could “more effectively compete within the sports tourism marketplace,” including specific sites where a large facility could go in the county.

The Park Authority-backed study identified nine different sites that it said could support facilities like a rectangle field complex with 16 fields or an ice complex, comparable to the one in Ballston.

However, as several supervisors brought up, none of the sites were vetted for equity, environmental impacts, or even the land’s current ownership.

Many of the preferred sites are in the north and northwest part of the county, while none are located in the south. Several sit in protected watershed areas, while a few others are privately owned, like George Mason University property, as opposed to county-owned.

The equity review requested in May was finished over the summer. Last month, the Sports Tourism Task Force recommended proceeding with an advertisement and “to consider the equity impact review as it reviews potential public-private partnerships” instead of at this stage in the process.

This didn’t sit well with several supervisors, including McKay, who wanted to make sure that the advertisement made clear that the recommended sites in the study were not county-approved.

“Frankly, I wish the consultant report didn’t exist. I think it was created under false pretense…It had no look at equity,” said McKay. “I don’t necessarily support any sites in there…They are in no way in any shape or form an endorsed list of locations by this board.”

Herrity accepted an amendment that the ad include language urging developers to be “creative” and recommend a site not on the consultant’s list.

Additionally, McKay asked that the entire board look at the advertisement to vet the language prior to it being released.

The plan now is to have staff update the report before Herrity resubmits the motion. While he hoped to have it by the board meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 25), Herrity told FFXnow that November now looks more likely, though he “was ready six months ago.”

He said this is the first program, in his recollection, “forced” to have an equity review as well as the first time that he remembers where the board will review the language for a request for proposals.

Nonetheless, he’s ready for Fairfax County to get in the game and build facilities that could help bring more revenue to the county, particularly with increased hotel occupancy.

The rest of the board appears to agree with the idea of exploring sports tourism, but it has to be “done right.”

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this done right that will permanently…affect the long-term sustainability of sports and sports tourism in this county,” McKay said.

Photo via Fairfax County Park Authority

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