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Assembly members move to delay funding for Turnagain tennis courts

Nathaniel Herz

Three Anchorage Assembly members are trying to delay funding for the construction of indoor tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood, citing concerns over the project's costs and how it was funded.

Bill Starr, Adam Trombley and Dick Traini have sponsored a resolution that would split a $37 million state grant into two chunks. That would allow the Assembly to separately consider $26.5 million in upgrades and renovations to four city ice arenas and other facilities, and $10.5 million for what the city is calling the Northern Lights Recreation Center -- the six indoor tennis courts and a pair of half basketball courts.

The money for the recreation center arrived in last spring's state capital budget at the request of the Alaska Tennis Association with the support of Mayor Dan Sullivan. The request bypassed the Assembly, which typically vets many -- but not all -- of the city's appeals for capital funding.

That irked Starr, a budget watchdog who questioned why the funding for the recreation center was included in a line item marked for "Project 80's Deferred and Critical Maintenance."

Starr said he wanted to know why the cost of the project, which he characterized as "the mayor's country club," had risen to more than $10 million from the original $7.2 million requested from the state. And, he said, he was waiting to hear more from Sullivan about how the project was put together and how much it would cost to operate.

"He's not going to be able to sell it unless you have some solid discussion on it," Starr said. "He needs to package it."

Sullivan has scheduled an Assembly work session on the resolution for Friday, where he said that he expected to be able to address members' concerns. A representative of the tennis association, Allen Clendaniel, will also be on hand.

"I think what people want to see is kind of a detailed description of the funding, what it's going to pay for. How is the facility going to be used for its various sports, what's going to be the operating costs?" Sullivan said in an interview. "And we're prepared on Friday to provide all that information."

He rejected Starr's characterization of the project, which would provide the city's only public indoor tennis courts, as "the mayor's country club."

"It's not my facility. It's the public's facility," Sullivan said.

The recreation center's price tag had risen to $10.5 million after the city had settled on an initial design, according to Sullivan. The higher costs will not pull money away from the renovations to the hockey rinks, which will still get all necessary upgrades identified in an engineering study, he said.

The cost of operating the recreation center is estimated to be between $400,000 and $500,000 annually, Sullivan said, though the tennis association has pledged to raise an endowment to offset those figures.

Fees would be in the range of $28 to $30 per court, Sullivan said. That would cost doubles players $7 per session, and singles players $14 or $15, he said.

The fees were the subject of a letter sent to Sullivan in August by Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. Gara, who said he grew up playing on publicly funded courts, asked that the Anchorage courts be accessible to "youth of all incomes."

Sullivan responded Tuesday with a phone call, and the two then met in person the same day, Gara said.

According to Gara, Sullivan discussed the fees and mentioned free tennis clinics for kids, and also asked if Gara would be willing to talk to some Assembly members about the project. Gara viewed the request as a concern over the outcome of the impending vote on the resolution, he said.

"He's certainly counting votes," Gara said in an interview. "He was hoping I would call some of the Assembly members."

Sullivan said that the meeting was a response to Gara's letter, and out of respect to Gara's position on the House Finance Committee -- though Sullivan said he did ask if Gara would be willing to tell Assembly members his story about playing tennis as a child.

The Assembly will take up two measures related to the recreation center in its meeting on Tuesday -- one sponsored by Sullivan that would accept the whole $37 million state grant, and the second sponsored by Starr, Trombley and Traini to accept the $26.5 million that doesn't include the money for the recreation center.

The $10.5 million for the recreation center would then be considered separately, at an Assembly meeting two weeks later.

Starr said that he was considering a move to put that money toward other projects -- ideally some that originated in the 1980s, given the title of the line item in the capital budget.

But Joe Michel, the state's capital budget coordinator and an aide to Rep. Bill Stoltze, said that the funding could only be redirected to projects that are included in the language of original grant.

The city can also postpone spending the money, but the Legislature could take it back during next year's session, Michel said.

It's unclear how the Assembly will vote on the competing measures on Tuesday, but Starr said he thought if the vote were taken this week, the full $37 million would be "delayed or terminated."

In interviews, members Tim Steele and Adam Trombley expressed skepticism about the recreation center, though both said they could still be convinced to support it. Assembly chairman Ernie Hall, who with Steele represents Turnagain, said he was backing the project.

Sullivan said he wanted to see a unanimous vote by the Assembly.

"We will be able to answer all their questions about process, about the need in the community," he said.

One thing Sullivan will not have to worry about: broad neighborhood opposition. After several members of the Turnagain Community Council expressed concerns when news of the project first broke, the council voted 25 to 1 at its last meet to conditionally support the recreation center.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.