Assembly members grill Sullivan on tennis court plans

Nathaniel Herz

Members of the Anchorage Assembly sharply questioned Mayor Dan Sullivan about the planned construction of tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood, alleging that the Legislature had been "hoodwinked" into funding them.

The accusation came from Assemblyman Bill Starr at a work session Friday at City Hall. Starr frequently interrupted Sullivan and accused him of usurping the Assembly's authority to shape state funding requests.

Along with other members, both liberal and conservative, Starr peppered Sullivan with questions about how much the project would cost to build and maintain, and how some $10 million was secured from the state to pay for it.

The work session ended with several members appearing to line up in support of plans that could divert the money for the proposed Northern Lights Recreation Center to other projects -- with a city purchase of existing courts from the Alaska Club as a possible alternative to a new facility.

Afterward, Sullivan said he would work with Assembly leaders to decide before Tuesday's meeting whether to continue his push for the new courts, or to ask the Legislature to re-grant the money so the city could buy courts from the Alaska Club, which is trying to sell some of its tennis facilities in the face of what it sees as shrinking demand.

Sullivan said he thought he and administration staff had done a good job of answering the Assembly's questions. But members appeared far from placated with several convening afterward on the first floor of City Hall to discuss their opposition.

They had several lingering concerns.

Assembly members objected to Sullivan's assertions that they had previously been informed about the project, which would be built near Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena off Northern Lights Boulevard.

Sullivan cited a budget work session held a year ago that included a $6 million budget line for "Public Court Replacement Dempsey Anderson."

" 'Replacement' has a different meaning to me than 'new,' " said Assemblyman Paul Honeman.

Assembly members also said they were still unclear about the recreation center's design and construction costs.

Sullivan is asking for $10.5 million in state grant money, but Starr received an email from Public Works Director Ron Thompson that said cost projections were more like $11 million or $12 million.

"What are they proposing to build?" Starr asked. "Where are the drawings?"

Sullivan's presentation at Friday's work session included a site plan and schematics but no accounting or plan for construction.

Another concern expressed was that to accommodate the rising cost of the tennis center, the Sullivan administration was shortchanging renovations to city hockey rinks, which had also received money under the same state grant.

Sullivan had said the renovations to Anchorage's ice arenas matched up with the recommendations of an engineering study. In fact, the city had elected to refurbish, rather than replace, the ice system at Sullivan Arena (named for the mayor's father). That was a departure from the study's recommendations.

"I don't like to see a Band-Aid on a fix that really should be a replacement," Assemblywoman Amy Demboski said. "There's definitely a concern there that maybe some projects are being scaled back and not being appropriately repaired or replaced."

But John Rodda, the city's director of parks and recreation, told the Daily News that due to a recent replacement of the concrete floor at Sullivan Arena, the engineering study's recommendations made little sense.

"At face value, you can construe that there's a manipulation," he said, referring to the fact that less funding was budgeted for the work on the arena. "But in fact, the reality is, it's really ill-spent money to retrofit an entire system that doesn't require it."

Finally, Assembly members peppered Sullivan and an aide to Rep. Lindsey Holmes about how and why the funding for the new recreation center was included in the state capital budget under a line item for "Project '80s Deferred and Critical Maintenance."

"I call it deceit," said Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson.

Sullivan said legislators working on the budget put the money there because the line item already included funding for the Dempsey-Anderson area.

"They literally felt, 'Why not just combine the projects?' " Sullivan said. He added that key legislators had received a proposal for the project from the Alaska Tennis Association.

He rejected the assertion by Starr that legislators had been "hoodwinked."

"I would never say that about our very intelligent legislators," Sullivan said.

However, Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage, whose legislative district includes the proposed site of the recreation center, said she did not hear about the project until after she voted on it.

"It was a complete surprise to me when the capital budget was finished, and all of a sudden there was a new building in it," she said.

The Assembly will take public comments at its Tuesday meeting on two competing measures related to the recreation center. One, sponsored by Sullivan, would accept the $10.5 million in grant funding for it along with $26.5 million more for the hockey rinks and renovations to other buildings like the Anchorage Museum.

A second, sponsored by Starr, Dick Traini and Adam Trombley, would accept just the $26.5 million, and push consideration of the recreation center money back to a separate meeting next month.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.