Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 - NOVA Parks in Review

Cate Magennis Wyatt
2015 was another excellent year for NOVA Parks, with progress and achievement in many areas. Here are a few of the highlights from the year.

NOVA Parks Board:
In February, Joan Rokus stepped down from our Board after 23 years of service. The Loudoun Board of Supervisors appointed Cate Magennis Wyatt to fill that seat. Cate brings a wealth of experience to our Board. She served as the Virginia Secretary of Commerce, reporting directly to Governor Doug Wilder. Her leadership roles in the private sector, government, and non-profit sectors helped her found and grow the Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG), which promotes tourism and conservation in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Sean Kumar
In September, David Pritzker stepped down from our Board after 35 years of service. The City Council of Alexandria appointed Sean Kumar to serve in his place. Sean is a life-long resident of Alexandria with a law career in both the public and private sectors. Currently, Mr. Kumar is a JAG officer in the U.S. Army.

One of the key measures of a healthy park system is growth in parkland. 2015 was a great year in the expansion of parkland at NOVA Parks. We started the year by opening the Tinner Hill Historic Site on the border between the City of Falls Church and Fairfax County. This site played a significant role in the early Civil Rights movement one hundred years ago.
Tinner Hill Ribbon Cutting

On June 1,  NOVA Parks opened the Beaverdam Reservoir for recreational use. This is part of a partnership with Loudoun Water who owns the reservoir. Between the 600-acre reservoir and the roughly 450 acres of NOVA Parks land adjacent to it, we have a 1,000+ acre park with one of the largest lakes in the region. After a successful summer season, we initiated a public planning process in October to help envision the future of this new park area.

We obtained permits putting The Battle of Middleburg/Mt. Defiance property closer to an open park. A few more permits and some additional work, and this site will help tell the story of a Civil War battle that is not well known.

In December, we completed the acquisition of Springdale Regional Park, a 150 acre site on the Potomac River near Point of Rocks. Additional permits and work are needed to open this site, but the first and all important step of acquiring it is done!
Beaverdam Reservoir

NOVA Parks continues to be recognized by many national and state organizations as one of the best park agencies in the nation. This year, the Virginia Recreation and Parks Society (VRPS) bestowed the ‘Best Promotional Effort’ award for the NOVA Parks Facility Guide and Directory. The Government Financial Officers Association (GFOA) again gave us both the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award and the Certificate of Achievement in Financial Reporting Award.
Children at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park

Four years ago, we set a goal of having half a million children have a meaningful nature experience through NOVA Parks over five years. This September, we celebrated this achievement. We call our program to engage children with nature “Nature Nuts,” and it incorporates all the ways children are exploring nature in our park system. Recently, we have expanded our summer camp programs, and we partnered with other organizations like Audubon Naturalist Society to offer more nature-based programing in our parks. We also have a very successful ‘Roving Naturalist’ program that brings nature education to where the people are, at fairs, festivals and other gatherings. Getting children interested in nature will assure that this is support for parks in the future.

Improving the W&OD Trail:
Flashing Beacons
We have been on a multi-year effort to improve trail safety. In 2015, rapid flashing beacons were added to the roadways crossing the trail at Cedar Lane, Belmont Ridge Road, and Sterling Blvd. Also, there was a tunnel built for trail users to go under Rt. 7 and Rt. 9 in Loudoun County. Crestview Drive and Van Buren Streets in Herndon received new medians to allow for easier crossing by trail users. Currently, there is construction going on to improve safety of the intersection at Park Street in Vienna. Last year, in our Trail Safety Summit, we heard that in addition to the physical engineering we would also need social engineering to address behaviors of trail users to instill a more friendly and safety-focused ethic. We started addressing this issue this year by making our first two “Trail Guys” videos. One deals with staying hydrated, and the other deals with the need to stop at stop signs. Both use humor to make their points.

Personnel Management:
Leadership Training for Park Managers
“People are our most important asset” is much more than a saying. NOVA Parks has become one of the best park agencies in the nation because of the work of our outstanding staff. To continue to build on this momentum, we implemented a truly novel and innovative system of goals and rewards this year. 2014/2015 was the first year where virtually all our staff had personal goals for the year. In October, all those goals were reviewed, and new goals were set for the coming year. We used a new web-based system to manage all of these annual reviews and goals. The end result was making a much clearer connection between the strategic goals of the organization and the role that each staff member plays in achieving those goals. Also this year, employees were eligible for a new Performance Incentive Plan (PIP). We took a percentage of our end of the year surplus and used it as a bonus pool. Based on the achievement of personal goals, most employees received a Performance Incentive to recognize their achievements. This creates an investment and buy-in on the performance of the whole organization that is highly motivating. This program will hopefully inspire even greater performances in the future.

Parks hit new highs in use:
2015 has seen more park users and more associated park revenues than ever before. This success has been spread across most elements of our operations. Events, waterparks and many other areas have driven growth. Golf has been down for a number of years but seems to have flattened out. As we end the year, we are going out with a bang! The two holiday light shows that run from mid-November to January 3rd are seeing their greatest use ever. Over 160,000 visitors are ending the year by enjoying either the Bull Run Festival of Lights in Centreville, a drive-through show; or the Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights in Vienna, a walk-through light show.
Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights

Bull Run Festival of Lights

As happens any year, there were some setbacks along with the victories in 2015. But, by any standard, 2015 was a great year for NOVA Parks, and a great year for our region!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Budgets are Good!

I like organizational budgets. There, I said it, judge me if you must.

And for our 8th consecutive year NOVA Parks has won the top honors in public sector budgeting. This is the Distinguished Budget Award awarded by the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA). This award is not like an audit where they see if all the math is correct. It is much more than that. The goal for this award is financial transparency, or in other term, making a budget understandable to everyone.

In the old days a budget was just a tool to control expenses and forecast revenues. It was all about the numbers. Today a good budget is much more. It is a communication tool to convey the priorities and focus of the organization.

At NOVA Parks our budget is THE go to document. It contains both strategic goals, and operational goals for each facility. It has various measurable results for each facility. I has charts and graphs that show ten year trends for many of our major areas of focus, and contains an analysis of the current and future years. And in addition to all of this good stuff, it also has our revenues and expenses.

NOVA Parks is very unique in that we self-fund 85% of our operations. So tax dollars make up just 15% of our operating revenues. What this means is that we need to be much more business focused than most other park agencies. The national average for park agencies is that 73% of operations are funded by government tax dollars.

To offset the uncertainty of  not having a guaranteed funding source for most of our expenses, we are quite diversified. So rather than having all our eggs in one basket, we are in about a dozen different businesses that fit our park mission. The end result is the public gets an amazing deal from NOVA Parks. Fantastic destination parks, minimal claim on tax dollars, and wonderful services.

The link below is for the FY'2016 Budget for NOVA Parks:


Friday, December 18, 2015

Innovation Lights the Way in Premier Light Shows

Winter Walk of Lights

The innovative holiday light shows of both Bull Run Regional Park and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens have transformed the holiday season for thousands in the Northern Virginia area.  Both shows feature highly customized 100% LED light displays.  NOVA Parks defines the very best of Northern Virginia, and this can be seen very clearly at these two shows.  Collectively, between these two shows, around 150,000 people experience these amazing light displays, and 2015 is likely to set a new high water mark for both shows.

The first great innovation happened in 2005.  Before that time, a contractor had a light show for years at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville.  That year, the contactor did not show up to run the light show.  The old show was not all that it could be, but it still had a following.  NOVA Parks decided to create an all-new 100% LED light show that used quite a bit of animation.  The new show was a big hit and also the first all LED drive-through light show in America!  Over the last ten years, we have added to the lights every year, and the popularity has grown.  Last year, over 35,000 cars or an estimated 120,000 people experienced this amazing 2.5 mile long Bull Run Festival of Lights.

In 2013, NOVA Parks opened the premier Botanical Garden light show in the country.  The Meadowlark Winter Walk of Lights in Vienna, Virginia, is also a 100% LED light show.  It is a very different experience where at a half mile walk through show, the lights surround and delight the visitors.  It is highly animated with a strong nature theme, including a river of lights with jumping fish, butterflies and squirrels moving in lights.  The experience is spectacular.  Last year, 46,500 people were delighted by this magical experience.

The key to success in both shows has been to go big.  We have really focused on making both highly unique, and totally custom.  The holiday season is filled with tradition, but our goal is to delight and surprise our visitors.  A trip to either of these light shows is not complete unless everyone is delighted and in awe.  Our goal is that no visitor will be able to resist pointing and saying “wow” as he or she goes through these ever changing and expanding shows.

Last year saw more than 166,000 people enjoy these shows.  This year, we have already surpassed that number, and there is still time for more to participate before the shows close on January 3, 2016. 

Tinner Hill Historic District

January 2015 Grand Opening of Tinner Hill Historic Site

The Tinner Hill Historic District was just approve to be on the Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Places. This is yet another acknowledgement of the significant events that took place 100 years ago when this site on the border between Falls Church and Fairfax County was the place of a meeting that led to the first rural chapter of the NAACP.

In 1915 Falls Church was considering segregation zoning that would result in displacing many African American families. This was relatively common in the time of Jim Crow segregation laws. A group of very brave civic leaders fought these efforts in Falls Church and won. The current Fairfax County NAACP is a direct descendant organization from this effort in 1915.

The property is made of two parcels one purchased by the City of Falls Church, and one by Fairfax County in 1999. In 2014 both the City and County leased these parcels to NOVA Parks for 99 years so we could create a unified site. NOVA Parks added a shelter, walk ways, signs, and art.

The historic arch of civil rights is long. The movement did not start in the 1950 as some believe, but has a much longer complex story. The Tinner Hill Historic Site is one of those places that celebrates an early victory in the civil rights movement.

A new park on the Potomac!

Yesterday we completed the acquisition of another future park! We will call it Springdale, and it is 150 acres on the Potomac River. The site includes farm structures from the early 1800s, and is in an area with a rich Native American history. There is almost a half mile of river frontage.

There is no public access to this site yet, but over the next few years we hope to be able to open this great site for public use. 

NOVA Parks has added around 1,500 acres and 12 new parks in the last 10 years! We are currently at over 11,500 acres of some of the most beautiful land in the Northern Virginia Region. Some of our parks are remote and passive, and some are extremely popular, and highly used.

Our role in the world is to provide unique destination parks that  help define the very best of Northern Virginia.

Thank you PHTA

Below is a report on the activities of the Potomac Heritage Trail Association over the last year. I highlighted all the parks that are owned by NOVA Parks to focus on just how much this trail group does to help us. In addition to being one of your many important partners in maintaining our properties, they are also helping out all the other park agencies in the region. 

Volunteers are critical to providing great park places for the public, and the Potomac Heritage Trail Association is one of the very best groups out there. THANK YOU!

Potomac Heritage Trail Accomplishments for 2015
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
   Scouting a future PHT route from Georges Mill Road to Route 340, with
    major research on public road access for the PHT route.
Springdale Regional Park
   Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority purchased 150 acres along the
   Potomac River near Point of Rocks, with plans for a future section of the PHT.
Whites Ford Regional Park
   New PHT logo indicating that the Riverfront Trail is now a section of the PHT.
Veterans Park at Balls Bluff
   New park entrance and Potomac Heritage Trail sign, with fresh paint blazing.
Potomac Crossing Park
   New PHT logo on new park entrance sign.
Balls Bluff Battlefield Regional Park
   Fresh PHT paint blazing, including along Balls Bluff above the Potomac River.
Edwards Landing Park
    Fresh PHT paint blazing.
Sage Hill Farm
   New trail near removed pine plantation, with new PHT paint blazing.
Red Rocks Wilderness Overlook Regional Park
   New PHT paint blazing along White Trail.
Elizabeth Mills Riverfront Park
   Fresh PHT paint blazing, new blue hiker logos at the Goose Creek Overlook
   Trail, Kepheart Landing Trail, and Goose Creek Canal Trail.
Janelia Farm Trail Easement
   Fresh PHT paint blazing, new plastic direction sign at east end.
Potomac Farm Trail Easement
   Fresh PHT paint blazing.
Selden Island
   Preliminary talks between the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Potomac
   Conservancy, and Potomac Heritage Trail Association about opening the
   island to the public as a nature preserve and possible section of the PHT.
Bles Park
   Major trail upgrade to the PHT, including new signage and gravel entrance.
   Fresh PHT paint blazing.
Algonkian Regional Park
   Fresh PHT paint blazing, and grand opening of the popular new Woods Land
   Trail. Ira Gabrielson and Algonkian Sanctuary National Recreation Trail signs
   moved to the proper location.
Lowes Island Trail Easement
   Fresh PHT paint blazing, with upgrades to trail sections.
Seneca Regional Park
   Fresh PHT paint blazing, and new PHT logos.
Fraser Preserve
   Fresh PHT paint blazing and new PHT logos
Upper Potomac Regional Parklands
   Fresh PHT paint blazing and new PHT logos.
Great Falls Park
  Repair of road along Difficult Run.
Great Falls to Scotts Run PHT connector trail
   Construction of new PHT trail along Capital Beltway sound wall.
Theodore Roosevelt Island National Memorial
   New Potomac Heritage Trail sign installed by PATC.
Woodlawn National Historic Trust
   Scouting of new section of Potomac Heritage Trail.
Fort Belvoir
   New bike path along Route 1, and scouting of new section of PHT along
   Fort Belvoir and through Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge.
Noman Cole Lower Potomac Water Treatment Center
   Scouting of new section of PHT, with upgrades and PHT paint blazing
   coming soon.
Joseph Plaskett Park
   New PHT paint blazing coming soon.
Laurel Hill Park
   New PHT trail along Laurel Crest, with connections to the Cross County Trail.
Mason Neck Visitor Information Center
    Grand opening of major PHT trail gateway for Mason Neck.
Meadowood Recreation Area
    PHT now complete.
Pohick Bay Regional Park
    PHT route now complete, with new PHT logos.
Gunston Hall National Historic Landmark
    New PHT logos.
Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge
    New PHT logos.
Mason Neck State Park
   New PHT logos.
Civil War Defense of Washington Trail
   Major Sierra Club PRO promotional hike in celebration of Rock Creek Park's
   125th anniversary.
   Major sections of the Potomac Heritage Trail have also added new plastic
   directional signs, wooden mileage signs, and Potomac Connection signs.
                                                                    Glenn Gillis

                                                                    Potomac Heritage Trail Association