Loudoun County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services is throwing a party on Saturday. It’s 50 years in the making.
The department will celebrate its golden anniversary at Franklin Park from 4 to 9 p.m. There will be live bands, food venders, giveaways, activities for the kids and fireworks. Department Director Steve Torpy is hoping for a big crowd at the free community event.
Torpy oversees a roster of facilities that likely could not have been conceived by the program’s founders.
The department was formed in August 1966, a time when the county had no parks or recreation facilities. It did, however, have support from community-minded civic leaders who saw the value in promoting public programs. For some, that meant opening their backyard pools to provide youth swimming lessons, recalled former department directory Cynthia Welsh. She worked for the department for 35 years, retiring in 2004.
“We literally started from the ground up,” she said.
Come to the Party
When: Saturday, Aug. 13, 4-9 p.m.
Where: Franklin Park, 17501 Franklin Drive, Purcellville
What: Live music, giveaways, children’s activities, fireworks
And while there may have been community support for public recreation programs, that view wasn’t necessarily shared by the notoriously frugal Board of Supervisors that didn’t see the need for such extravagance.
“It was really hard back then to get any funding for parks,” Welsh said.
Welsh said the department’s early strategy, developed by her boss Philip A. Bolen who later served as Loudoun’s county administrator for two decades, was to secure parkland and to work with the county schools to use their facilities when classes were out. The summertime “playground clubs” offered at the schools had parents lining up pre-dawn hours to get their kids registered, Welsh said.
The county’s first park, acquired with the help of state grants Bolen secured, was a small lot along the Potomac River that provided a boat launch. Today, McKimmy’s Landing, near the Point of Rocks Bridge, is operated by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Starting in the 1970s, the department focused on developing programs in former school buildings that were converted into community centers. Loudoun Valley Community Center in Purcellville was the first. But even then, it was community partnerships that fueled the department, Welsh said. The popular CASA after school program got its start with the help of Xerox Corp. The company operated its training center in today’s Lansdowne, and funded an employee to help develop the programs. And the community centers’ child care and preschool programs—starting at Loudoun Valley Community Center—were initially underwritten by donations from residents rather than taxpayers, she said.
A turning point for parks and recreation in Loudoun came during the growth wave in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
First, the Board of Supervisors invested in the county’s first major purchase of parkland, acquiring land Claude Moore had donated to the National Wildlife Federation, which later sold it to a developer, over Moore’s strong, but legally unsuccessful, objections. County voters approved a bond referendum to purchase the land from the developer. That was followed by another bond issue to purchase parkland in western Loudoun, today’s Franklin Park.
Also county leaders, including Bolen’s successor as parks director Jim Stup and Welsh, developed standards for what types of recreation spaces—trails, tot lots and neighborhood parks—should be included in the new subdivisions springing up in Ashburn’s cornfields and dairy farms. That opened the modern era of the county parks system, when developer proffers, county purchases and public donations fueled a rapid expansion of the county’s park offerings. Today, there are 34 public parks listed on the department’s inventory.
Department directors Diane Ryburn, who took over for Welsh in 2004 and retired in 2014, and Torpy who were on the front lines during that period of rapid growth.
Torpy joined the department 19 years ago, as the new recreation center, with the department’s first indoor pool, opened at Claude Moore Park. Next year, he’ll celebrate the opening of a similar aquatics center at the Dulles South Community Center. That will be followed by the development of the county’s next regional park, the 157-acre Hal and Berni Hanson park near Arcola. Also new as Torpy joined the department was its merger with the Area Agency on Aging and the county’s senior center program has grown significantly.
“I’ve been very blessed to have been able to work with tremendous people in the department and the community as a whole,” Torpy said.
He reminds new employees that work in the field is more of a calling than a job. “You can have a tremendous impact on people every day,” he said.