Pulling For The Park

Pulling For The Park

Riverbend staffer resigns, then gets to work.

Joseph Frye gets out of his car and walks down a short path to the river. On the way, he points out the features of Riverbend Park he knows so well: the boat launch, unusable now because the river is too high, the visitors' center with its wildlife exhibits and the trails that take hikers all the way to the impressive waterfalls that gave Great Falls its name.

Riverbend Park covers 400 acres and stretches out along a sliver of the Potomac that has been named one of the 10 most endangered landscapes by the environmentalist group Scenic America. It sits right in the middle of a residential area of Great Falls and protects the vulnerable riverbank from being developed.

"A lot of the surrounding neighborhoods use the park," said Frye, a 28 year-old Great Falls resident, who has been to Riverbend Park many times. This time, though, is different. This is the first time in several years that he's there as an ordinary visitor. Frye worked at the park for about three years until he resigned Friday, April 25, upset about the way the Fairfax County Park Authority and the Board of Supervisors were handling budget cuts that would shorten the park's hours and lay off several staff members, including himself.

AFTER HE resigned, however, Frye really got to work. He organized the community to urge the Board to save the park. He put flyers in people's mailboxes, posted a petition at Gilette's Coffee Shop in Great Falls that was signed by 44 people and organized a rally outside the Government Center on April 28, the day the Board formally adopted the budget.

Although his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, he felt compelled, he said, to try to save the park.

"It's a beautiful park," he said. "And the people who work and volunteer there are very dedicated."

Frye, who grew up in Great Falls, has been coming to the park since he was a child. He remembers when it had a snack bar, boat rentals, a patrol boat on the Potomac and a beehive display.

"It's like a slippery slope the park's been going down," he said. "[County officials] reduce services to the park and reduce services to the park and say less people are using it," thereby enabling them to cut further.

Frye said he resigned because no one told him about the cuts until Tuesday, April 22. The cuts were first made public April 18, after three nights of marathon public hearings on the budget left citizens with little opportunity to voice their concern. That left less than a week to organize the community before the Board voted on the budget.

"Most people weren't aware of it until Wednesday or Thursday," he said. "A lot of people are upset about that. I hate to think that's the reason for putting it in at the last minute, but that's what it seems like."

Later that week, Frye went to Park Authority management and asked them how long they had known about the cuts before telling any of the staff.

"I get the impression they'd known about it for a month beforehand," he said. "I'm just disappointed they didn't let me know about this as soon as possible."

He was so disappointed at how he'd been left in the dark that he quit that Friday.

AS PART OF this year's budget, the Board cut $233,000 out of Riverbend Park and Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale. Starting next July, Hidden Oaks will only open for scheduled groups and the hours at Riverbend's visitor center will be reduced to Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The number of programs offered at both parks will decrease 70 percent. Riverbend will open at 9 a.m., two hours later than now, even though Frye said birdwatchers and fishermen like to come to the park early in the morning.

The cuts would also eliminate five permanent positions as well as all the seasonal positions at the parks. If Frye had not resigned, his seasonal position would have disappeared at the end of the spring, typically the park's busiest season.

Although they were known as seasonal workers, some of the employees worked almost year-round. Frye said he would work 11 months out of the year, be laid off for a month and then rehired. That way, he said, the county did not have to provide him with benefits. "It's a very common practice," he said.

Park Authority Director Michael Kane confirmed that the parks on occasion hire seasonal workers for long stretches at a time. The positions, he said, are "cyclical."

He also vowed to look for ways to offset the budget cuts, such as getting volunteers or nonprofit groups like the Potomac Conservancy to pitch in at the parks.

"These are really valuable facilities and we really need to find a way to keep them open. That's what my job is," he said, adding that he was not surprised the community was concerned.

The reductions to Hidden Oaks and Riverbend bring the Park Authority's total budget cuts to $2.1 million, which will force park officials to abolish 11 positions and reduce training and repair funds.

"There's really nothing left," said Kane. "This is really the first year where we've had to cut visitor services."

FRYE SAID he understood that money is tight this year, adding he would consider going back to the park to volunteer.

"I don't hold any grudges with anybody at the park," he said.

But he is worried that the Board's decision might have been motivated by bad information. He heard Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), the Board's budget chair, say that Riverbend spent $17 for each visitor, which he felt was too high. The correct figure, according to Park Authority spokesperson Judy Pedersen, is $2 per visitor at Riverbend and $14 per visitor at Hidden Oaks. Bulova said she'd gotten the figure from the Park Authority.

Also, the official figure of around 150,000 annual visitors at Riverbend seems low to Frye because only people who drive to the visitor center are counted. People who live in the neighborhood and who ride or walk to the park are never counted, he said. Pedersen said the true number of park visitors was probably higher than the figure suggests.

"I think it's going to have more effect on people than they realize," said Frye.

ON A BEAUTIFUL spring Saturday, adults and children were out enjoying Riverbend Park. Great Falls residents Karina Manicka and her husband Gary were strolling along a path as their children Kirill and Sofia ran in circles around them.

"I really like this park more than Great Falls [Park] because it's not crowded," said Karina, who is expecting the family's third child. "It's really a park for people who are living here."

She used to go mushroom-picking in the park, she added, a custom she brought with her from her native Russia. "Once I made a dinner for my husband with those mushrooms and he didn't die."

About the reduced hours, she said: "It will be a disaster."

She said she was particularly upset about the delayed opening hours. "I come early in the morning because I have children," she said.

Near the river, Sassan Kimiavi and his four and a half year-old son Alex were discovering the park for the first time. Kimiavi had heard about the park from a friend and was looking forward to teaching his son how to fish along the banks of the Potomac. The delayed opening, he said, "would be an inconvenience."

To Frye, these are only a few of the many residents who will be impacted by the cuts. "If we'd just had a few more days, we could have gotten together to get more chances to participate."