Assembly sets back plans for indoor tennis courts

Nathaniel Herz

The Anchorage Assembly set back plans for the construction of city-run indoor tennis courts at its meeting Tuesday night, voting unanimously to accept a chunk of state funding for other projects that does not include money for the Northern Lights Recreation Center.

The vote came after the Assembly heard testimony from dozens of people pushing for the construction of the public courts in Turnagain.

The Assembly had been considering two different measures Tuesday. One, pushed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, would have accepted a $37 million state grant for the tennis courts, as well as for renovations to several city ice rinks and other buildings.

 A second, sponsored by Assembly members Bill Starr, Dick Traini and Adam Trombley, was written to accept just $26.5 million, pushing back consideration of the $10.5 million for the Northern Lights Recreation Center for a later meeting.

Starr’s measure passed unanimously, while a vote on the one pushed by Sullivan was postponed until the Assembly’s meeting on Oct. 22.

It was unclear just how the acceptance of the $26.5 million would affect the fate of the tennis courts, given that the Assembly will still consider the $10.5 million.

But after Tuesday’s meeting, Sullivan said he would re-examine the request for the recreation center money, potentially scaling it back after exploring whether more could be put towards Sullivan Arena — for a new sound system, for example.

The scale and cost of the recreation center, he said, could be downsized.

“We’ll get out there and get a bunch of folks to value engineer it,” he said.

Nearly 50 people testified on the measures Tuesday, most of whom were tennis players. Some brought their rackets and wore stickers that said “Yes on Tennis.” There were elderly players, high school players, and coaches.

They urged Assembly members to set aside their concerns about the way that the Alaska Tennis Association, with Sullivan’s support, had obtained the money for the tennis courts after a request to the state legislature last spring.

The funding was packaged in the state capital budget along with the renovations to the rinks and other buildings under a line item called “Project 80s Deferred and Critical Maintenance.” And some Assembly members have raised questions about whether all legislators were aware of the project.

“Beat up on them all you want, but don’t kill this project. Because if this project goes back to Juneau, you’ll never see the money,” said Bill Bittner, a member of the Alaska Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame. “We didn’t ask for it to be lumped in with Project 80s. But the point is now that it’s there, accept the gift and work within the budget, while we are busy fundraising to help with the maintenance.”

The tennis boosters had been rallied by emails sent around the tennis community, as well as by an advertisement that ran in the Daily News this week by the Alaska Club criticizing the project’s costs, and the way it was funded, said Allen Clendaniel, a member and former president of the Alaska Tennis Association.

Given what it characterizes as flagging demand, The Alaska Club has pushed the city to buy one of its two private tennis facilities, which it says it would sell for half of the $10.5 million it could cost to construct the recreation center.

Nearly all of those who testified on the measures supported the city accepting the money for the recreation center. The Alaska Club’s President, Robert Brewster, was one of a few who spoke in opposition.

 “This is not a referendum on whether tennis is good, or tennis is important,” he said. “The question is whether this particular facility is necessary.”

Assembly members asked Brewster several questions about his membership and tennis prices. They largely limited their questioning of other people who testified, though Assembly Vice Chair Adam Trombley made it clear that despite the potential benefits of the facility, he was still hung up on its funding.

“Why is a brand new, standalone, energy efficient building being bought and paid for out of money that is supposed to be allocated for Project 80s?” he asked one person.

In a written statement, Sullivan spokeswoman Lindsey Whitt said that the money was included in the Project 80s line item because the recreation center is planned for the same campus as the older Dempsey Anderson ice rink, and the two buildings were originally intended to be attached.

“However, it would still be considered an expansion of the Dempsey campus,” she said.

The Assembly also heard testimony on three other measures relating to the scheduling of a referendum to repeal the controversial city labor law that passed last spring. At 11 p.m., the meeting adjourned, and will be continued on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Dozens more people had shown up to testify on the referendum date, including many city workers, some of whom would have to wait until Wednesday.

“We’re still going to have our voices heard,” said Heidi Drygas, a lawyer for a municipal union that represents greenhouse and parks workers. “We’ll be back.”