City tennis project raises concerns in Turnagain

Nathaniel Herz
Erik Hill

Turnagain residents are used to having to fight to get government money for construction and renovation of neighborhood civic projects.

But this spring, they learned that the city would be building indoor tennis courts within their boundaries that they hadn't asked for -- and that they are not even sure they want.

Mayor Dan Sullivan said his administration and the Alaska Tennis Association have secured $7 million from the Alaska Legislature to build six indoor courts adjacent to the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena off Northern Lights Boulevard.

The project, Sullivan said in an interview, will create Anchorage's first indoor public tennis courts and will go out to bid in late July or August.

But Turnagain residents are crying foul, saying they weren't adequately consulted about the plans and that the city hasn't heeded their concerns about potential problems like traffic and parking.

"This seemed to come out of nowhere fast and rose right to the top," said Cathy Gleason, president of Turnagain's community council. "We certainly didn't ask for it."

Sullivan, a former West High tennis coach, said the city wrote a letter of support to lawmakers in Juneau for funding after being approached by tennis association members who wanted the city to build courts for year-round public access to the sport.

"Not everyone can afford to join a private facility and pay, as a family, $160 a month to play tennis," said tennis association vice president Ed Hendrickson.

At the request of city officials, Juneau lawmakers added funding for the courts to a larger package in the state capital budget earmarked, "Project 80s Deferred and Critical Maintenance." The money was originally intended to support renovations to aging facilities like the Dempsey-Anderson Arena, Sullivan Arena and the Ben Boeke Ice Arena.

"We just gave him a lump sum," said Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, referring to Sullivan.

The budget as passed by the Legislature listed the line item as "Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena and Addition of Indoor Multi-Use Court Facilities (tennis, basketball, volleyball, etc.)"

The tennis association estimates that the facility, which will likely include two half basketball courts and a small concession area, will cost about $8.5 million: some $7.2 million from the state and $1.3 million in previously authorized city bond funds. The association also intends to raise privately a $1.5 million maintenance budget, which would go toward lowering user fees, Hendrickson said.

The city will solicit bids from private contractors to run the facility, though it's unclear whether the operations will pay for themselves or require a city subsidy, Sullivan said.

"It all depends on what kind of responses we get," he said. "It's a little premature to answer whether or not it will be profit-making, break even or a facility that has to be partially subsidized."

The tennis association presented the project at a Turnagain Community Council meeting in February, where members passed a resolution in tentative support. But residents said they still had unanswered questions about how the facility would impact existing users of the Dempsey complex and nearby West High School and Romig Middle School.

Initial plans for the courts called for seating for 300 spectators, far more than the viewing galleries at the private indoor courts of the Alaska Club's East and North facilities. But council members said they were especially concerned about the resulting parking and traffic. Driving to and from Dempsey is already "a mess," according to Pat Redmond, an area resident who frequently visits the rink with her children and grandchildren.

"I think it's a great, great thing, and I think it'll be a great asset to the community," she said of the project. "I'm just not sure about the location."

Sullivan said that the city had done an analysis in the project's initial planning phase and found that it met parking standards. He said the operator of the new building would coordinate with the Dempsey complex to avoid conflicts.

"It's just a matter of good logistics and scheduling," Sullivan said. "I don't think this facility will have any impact whatsoever on traffic."

A pair of Democratic legislators from the area, Rep. Harriet Drummond and Sen. Berta Gardner, objected to what they said was a murky process of budgeting the state money for the tennis courts. Gardner sent an email briefing to her constituents on June 5 complaining that the tennis association proposal to the state had not been "fully vetted" by the public and came outside the city's formal budget request.

Requests for state funding for local development projects often go through a review at the community council level, where residents have the opportunity to weigh in and vote to fast-track their priorities -- though that didn't happen with the tennis courts, Gardner said.

"If you put something into the hopper for funding, you're asked: 'Does this have local community support?' " she said in a phone interview. "And that's only partway accurate because at that time the community council didn't know details. They had a lot of questions."

But Sullivan and Rep. Lindsey Holmes, who both pushed for the state funding, said money for projects can be granted outside the council process, especially for projects that have a potentially broad benefit.

"This is a citywide facility. It's not intended to be a community council priority-type project," Holmes said. "In an ideal world, we stop and talk to every person about everything. The best information I had at the time was that the community council was on record in support of the project."

Holmes, a Republican, lists tennis as a "special interest" on her official state website, and she said she played varsity as a student at West. Sullivan wasn't her coach there, she said, but she first met him through tennis.

Sullivan and tennis association members also said the project was needed because The Alaska Club is selling its North club, which houses five of Anchorage's nine indoor tennis courts.

The sale would be on the condition that the building not be used for tennis in the future. But Alaska Club President Robert Brewster said that if he found a buyer, the club has plans to add three new courts to the tennis building at its East club, leaving a total of seven in a more efficient space.

He also noted that the club already provides free access to its courts for local community groups and for tennis association tournaments, and that the new public facility would hurt its bottom line.

"This is a significant problem for us," he said. "We may have to exit the tennis business."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com