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Are Prince William County’s parks for sale?

There are no “for rent” signs currently strung from dugout fencing or playground slides at the moment, but the question is a reasonable one given the recent controversy around county officials’ decision to court “Tough Mudder” to Silver Lake Park with a $2 lease, $7,000 in county staff work (at least) and $35,000 in “performance-based” incentives. That means that if the event meets its targeted hotel room sales, the county will pay Tough Mudder, a New York-based private enterprise, $35,000 of your tax dollars for gracing Prince William County with its mud-soaked presence.

More than 7,500 people turned out to Silver Lake Park, located outside Haymarket, for the Tough Mudder event last weekend. The weather was a little hot, but mostly perfect. There were no major mishaps, and reports indicate the event was largely a success.

There’s still no word yet on exactly how many of the roughly 6,000 participants who came from outside the immediate area stayed in local hotels or ate in local restaurants, but those figures are forthcoming, we’re told.

But whether or not the Tough Mudder matches its forecast economic output, it raises a larger question: Is the county now in the business of using our public parks to turn a profit?

Of course, county officials have long made the argument that investing in public assets such as parks, schools and even roads always yields positive returns, not only for existing residents but also in attracting new business and spurring growth. But that’s always been an indirect, secondary goal to the primary aim, which is to make Prince William County an attractive place to live with nice amenities for its existing, tax-paying residents and businesses.

Directly placing county assets on the market for private use ups the ante, particularly when those private uses take parks and other facilities out of the public use for days or weeks, which was the case with Tough Mudder at Silver Lake Park. Such contracts place the pursuit of the almighty dollar – for both the parks department and private businesses – ahead of what should be the main goal for public parkland, which of course is public use.

About a year ago, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors reorganized the county’s department of parks, recreation and tourism to include its office of tourism. 

One has to wonder if that move was partly responsible for the discontent that resulted from that department’s decision to court Tough Mudder. While parks department professionals would naturally be more reticent about literally selling out a public asset for a commercial event, the pressure placed on tourism officials to court the lucrative “sports tourism” industry clearly won the day.

Perhaps county officials need to think about creating a process that more carefully weighs those competing pressures when contemplating whether the county should spend tax dollars courting such an event.

A more thoughtful approach is clearly needed to avoid another mess like the Tough Mudder left at Silver Lake Park.

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