Warm Welcome

An Educational Lobby at Alexandria Renew Enterprises helps fulfill a vision of community engagement and waterway connections.

Warm Welcome

A 7,000-gallon aquarium is the central attraction in the Renewing Our Waterways section of the Educational Lobby. 

Visitors to Alexandria (Virginia) Renew Enterprises don’t have to wait long to learn about the organization that keeps area waterways clean.

Essential messages greet them the minute they step in the door of the six-story Environmental Center. An Educational Lobby contains colorful, interactive displays about renewal of the waterways, renewal of resources, and more.

The lobby is a physical representation of the brand identity of Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew for short), formerly called the Alexandria Sanitation Authority. The brand reflects the vision of the organization’s CEO, Karen Pallansch, P.E., BCEE, and the board of directors.

The AlexRenew branding was introduced in 2012 at the city of Alexandria’s Earth Day celebration. The LEED Platinum Environmental Center opened in August 2016 and the Educational Lobby two months later.

Lisa Van Riper, director of communications, says those facilities and the brand identity are paying substantial dividends in engagement with the community and in customers’ connections with local waterways. She talked about the branding strategy, the organization’s Educational Lobby, and the benefits of both in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Why was a change in brand identity important to your organization?

Van Riper: When we opened back in 1956, our brand identity was the Alexandria Sanitation Authority. Over the years, as we completed many facility upgrades to protect the Chesapeake Bay, it made sense to change our name to help our customers understand who we are and what we really do, which is renew resources. We clean water to some of the strictest requirements in the U.S. We use about 1.5 billion gallons of reclaimed water every year. Last year we applied about 5,500 dry tons of Class A Exceptional Quality biosolids on farms in Virginia. We use more than 90 percent of the biogas from our digesters. So it made sense to call us Alexandria Renew Enterprises. We also changed our logo and extended our brand to say we are Alexandria’s Water Transformers.

TPO: How does that branding translate into action?

Van Riper: Around the same time, our citizen-led board created a vision for 2040 that took us from a passive treater of wastewater to a community partner and a transformer. The vision says that by 2040, we will have served as a catalyst and effectively partnered with watershed stakeholders so citizens can establish personal connections with the waterways, so we can eat local fish and swim in local streams. We will also support a healthy and resilient local economy through stable rates supported by diverse revenue and maximum resource recovery, and inform citizens about the importance of water.

The Educational Lobby, our Environmental Center, and the nutrient management facility on the same site, with a multipurpose field on top of it managed by the city, all reflect the 2040 vision and our brand identity.

TPO: Besides the lobby, what does the Environmental Center include?

Van Riper: Our customer service department is on the first floor. The second, third and fourth floors are our administrative offices. The fifth floor is currently unoccupied. The sixth floor has meeting rooms that community organizations can rent at low or no cost.

TPO: How did the Educational Lobby come about?

Van Riper: We had a cross-functional team. Our CEO and members of our engineering and outreach teams were involved. The Design Minds from Fairfax designed the exhibits, and Capitol Museum Services from Manassas did the fabrication. The lobby really was our CEO’s vision, which was inspired by outreach as we planned the construction of our Environmental Center. Community members, and in particular an organization called the East Eisenhower Design Review Board, suggested we consider a water learning center in the building.

TPO: How would you articulate that vision?

Van Riper: The vision is for visitors to become immersed in the water management cycle and the connections between AlexRenew and the community. It’s all about creating a place for our community, customers, and citizens to learn about and connect with water, the waterways, and the value of clean water.

TPO: What do visitors experience as they enter the Environmental Center?

Van Riper: You walk in the front door and on the left is our customer service manager, who works with people to pay their bills and answer questions. We also have a Little Free Library that looks like a water drop where and we have water-centric books. To the right of the entrance are the reception desk and the Educational Lobby.

TPO: What do visitors to the lobby encounter first?

Van Riper: The first area is Welcome to Alex Renew. There are two colorful blue welcome signs at each entrance. We have a biowall of plants that are watered by our reclaimed water. It’s a biofilter wall that helps provide fresh air for the first two floors of the building. Outside the lobby there’s a beautiful fountain that features our reclaimed water.

TPO: From the welcome section, where do visitors go?

Van Riper: Next comes Renewing Our Connection with a spinning history rail of Alexandria’s water and a push-button screen interactive where you can see photos of waterways in Alexandria and things we do on our campus to clean the water. There’s also a community art wall. Three times a year, community partners help us hold art events. We invite people in and display their artwork on the wall.

TPO: Is there a section to address the relationship between AlexRenew and the waters?  

Van Riper: Yes. It’s called Renewing Our Waterways. The highlight is a 7,000-gallon fish tank filled with our reclaimed water. It features fish native to our area. It’s split in half; one side has catfish, gar, and bass, and the other side has more peaceful species like bluegills and sunfish. The signs on the front of the fish tank reinforce the value of clean waterways.

TPO: Do you also highlight the wastewater treatment and recycling aspects?

Van Riper: That section is called Renewing Our Resources. It’s an easy-to-understand, visually interesting and interactive way to learn about the basic steps we use to transform dirty water into clean water. As visitors go through the steps, a lit rail shows the water getting cleaner and cleaner. Kids love it. They spin the rail that separates blue beads from brown beads. They push a button and it shows what happens if we don’t clean the water with the microbes. There are all kinds of interactives that they love, and in the end, they see clean water.

TPO: What about showing visitors what they can do to help keep the waters clean?

Van Riper: The last area is How Can I Renew? An interactive touch screen shows a cutaway of a house and all the areas of a home that use clean water and send dirty water down the pipes to us. There’s also a touch screen visitors can use to understand how much water they use and how to save water. Another display shows how visitors can protect the waterways, their pipes, and our pipes — what not to put down the drain.

TPO: What are some things you do to get the most benefit from the Educational Lobby?

Van Riper: We have the art events. We’ve started a series of Saturday events for kids and families who play soccer or other sports on the field next to our Environmental Center. A lit lenticular of our mascot, Moxie, is in the lobby. We also have a real live Moxie, who is a theater instructor in town and interacts with kids at all kinds of events. Once a month, Moxie does story hours in the lobby. In September, we’ll have our Master Gardeners here talking about native plants. A lot of tours start from our lobby — hundreds of people come for tours every year.

We host school groups and teachers, scout troops, adult learners, community organizations, and others who want to become better water stewards. Different organizations have events on the sixth floor and some like to start their events in the lobby. We have an annual Water Discovery Day with exhibits inside and outside the lobby and on the sixth floor. Also, people walking by the building say, “Oh, my gosh, what’s that?” They bring their kids in and they play in the lobby.

TPO: How would you characterize the return on investment from the branding and these facilities for the public?

Van Riper: We have a large number of people in our community connecting with the local waterways, learning more about what we do here and the return on their investment in clean water. It’s about engaging with thousands of people about water in general, about clean water, and about making connections. It creates much more understanding about what those bills are for. We’re the people who clean the dirty water. We’re the ones who help to protect the waterways. That’s the return on investment. It’s priceless when we can make meaningful connections with people every day. It throws off the cloak of invisibility that many water facilities have had. So many of us are becoming much more visible in our communities. What better way to do that than to have physical places to engage our citizens and customers?


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