Tennis trumped a labor law rewrite at Tuesday night's Anchorage Assembly meeting. An overflow crowd was evenly split between people who wanted to speak out about a proposed indoor tennis facility in the Turnagain neighborhood of West Anchorage, and those who wanted to sound off on the Assembly's March vote to rewrite the way the municipality deals with its unions.
Money to fund the proposed Northern Lights Recreation Center – which would include six indoor tennis courts – was first up for public testimony. So many people testified, that the hundreds gathered to talk about Anchorage Ordinance 37, the labor law rewrite, were pushed off until Wednesday night.
In all, more than 300 people – exceeding the 285 capacity of the room – filled assembly chambers. People who couldn't fit into the chambers at Loussac Library watched via closed-circuit television from the nearby Wilda Marston Theater.
The tennis crowd was the first to volley public comments at a proposal to spend $10.5 million of recently approved state money to build six indoor tennis courts in Turnagain. Fifty-seven people signed up and spoke for three minutes apiece. People supporting the proposed facility outnumbered opponents, by more than 20 to 1.
"I have 35 students on the East High tennis team, and 32 of them will have to hang up their racquets until June, because they don't have access to indoor courts," said East High tennis coach Nathan Carr.
But the proposal has run into heavy opposition, including from Assembly members themselves.
The mayor and the Alaska Tennis Association both support the idea of building new indoor courts because they say the Alaska Club – the only facility in Anchorage with indoor tennis – is too expensive for many low-income families.
On Friday, the Assembly met Mayor Dan Sullivan at City Hall to question him about the tennis court plan. Many said they did not know the court was even a possibility – claiming it had been put into a request for deferred maintenance money from the state in a way that did not make it clear the funds were for a new facility. Some even wondered if building tennis courts was the best use of public money in tight fiscal times. At the meeting, the Alaska Club – a statewide health and fitness company – offered to sell the city its indoor tennis courts – the only indoor courts in Anchorage.
On Tuesday night, the public weighed in on the plan as the Assembly worked to separate the tennis court money from the rest of the $26.5 million in deferred maintenance money the municipality got from the Alaska Legislature earlier this year.
The Assembly voted to do just that, and will deal with the $10.5 million for the tennis courts at its Oct. 22 meeting. The rest of the money will go to deferred maintenance.
That plan concerned some people.
"I am worried about both ideas – to separate the money or buy the Alaska Club courts," said Stephanie Williams, a board member of the Alaska Tennis Association, which supports the new indoor courts. "I am worried because if the plan is changed, the money will have to be reallocated in Juneau. That's a big if, especially because it is an election year," Williams said.
But the money to build the new tennis courts was sent to Anchorage from the Alaska Legislature as part of a packet of funds to fix old, Project 80s facilities. Project 80s was an effort during the administration of Sullivan's father, former mayor George Sullivan, to build an array of public works at a time the city and state were flush with oil money. Among them are Sullivan Arena, Egan Convention Center, and Performing Arts Center.
"I have a problem with the way this was put together," said Assemblyman Adam Trombley. "This money was meant for Project 80s buildings, like the one we are in now, the Loussac Library," he said. Trombley also questioned why the city needed to spend $10.5 million for tennis, instead of using it for deferred maintenance on older city-owned buildings.
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