Tennis courts or hockey rinks? Assembly to consider competing spending plans

Nathaniel Herz
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News Bill Starr speaks as Anchorage Assembly members visit Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena during a tour of local hockey rinks on Friday, November 1, 2013, in west Anchorage.
Erik Hill
Anchorage Assembly members arrive at Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena during a tour of local hockey rinks on Friday, November 1, 2013, in west Anchorage.
Erik Hill

The dispute over state funding for an indoor tennis facility in Anchorage's Turnagain neighborhood has essentially boiled down to a single question: Spend the money on upgrades at city hockey arenas, or spend it on the tennis courts?

That's the dilemma the Anchorage Assembly will take up at its meeting Tuesday, with Mayor Dan Sullivan advocating for the tennis project and Assemblyman Bill Starr leading the charge for hockey.

On Friday, Starr, who represents Eagle River and Chugiak, led Assembly members on a tour of three city ice arenas built in the 1970s and '80s, making his case for why they should vote to spend a total of $26 million of a $37 million state grant on upgrades there -- $7.5 million beyond what Sullivan proposes.

"It's an opportunity to upgrade the facilities to things that make sense for the upcoming life," he said in an interview afterwards. "They were fine in their day, and they're not fine now, as designed."

Sullivan contends that the ice arenas will get all the money they need. He said that Starr's extra upgrades disregard the city's long-term plans for the arenas and ignore the intent of the grant, which called for addition of the courts.

"He can go rogue with his proposal, but bottom line, it doesn't work within the systems we've established," he said in an interview Friday. "Just to throw money at something is not always the best solution."

The grant money comes from the state capital budget, which was passed in the spring. Some legislators have complained that they were unaware when they voted that funding for the new tennis courts had been included in a package earmarked for "deferred and critical maintenance." And Starr and other Assembly members were irked that they hadn't been consulted about the request for the money, which was made by the Alaska Tennis Association with Sullivan's support.

Sullivan said that the key legislators that controlled the capital budget had agreed to fund the project.

The Assembly has already voted to accept more than half of the grant, but not the funding for the tennis courts. At its Tuesday meeting, members will consider two competing plans for the money -- one from Starr, and one from Sullivan.

Both include core upgrades to the rinks at Sullivan Arena and Ben Boeke Arena in Fairview, and at Dempsey Anderson Arena in Turnagain. But they differ on the details, in part because the state only specified how $9 million of the grant should be used -- leaving the city to decide how to split up the rest.

Sullivan's proposal would dedicate $18.5 million to the hockey rinks, leaving $8.5 million for a recreation center in Turnagain that would include the new tennis courts. (The grant also includes money for work at other buildings, like the Anchorage Museum and the Harry J. McDonald ice arena in Eagle River, which is getting $4 million.)

"It is clear that the project was part of the funding," Sullivan said, referring to the recreation center. "To say there's no money for it, and that satisfies the legislative intent -- how can that be?"

Starr's proposal leaves out the funding for the recreation center, and adds things like a new $1.2 million scoreboard at Sullivan Arena plus an $840,000 storage building. That goes beyond a request for upgrades made by the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Alaska Aces, two of the arena's primary users.

Starr's proposal also adds new changing rooms at Ben Boeke Arena for $580,000, and Dempsey Anderson would get a new $1.75 million mezzanine between its two ice rinks to give spectators better views.

While the state grant is earmarked for "deferred and critical maintenance," Starr maintained that his proposed upgrades would be "modernizing" the ice rinks, and that improvements were permissable.

Starr pitched his plans to his colleagues on Friday afternoon, which saw Assembly members piling into a city van and driving between walking tours at each of the three arenas.

They were accompanied by several members of the Sullivan administration: Municipal Manager George Vakalis, Parks and Recreation Director John Rodda, and Public Works Director Ron Thompson.

Starr said his recommendations were based on his review of engineering and facilities studies of the arenas, as well as on consultations with their users -- though he acknowledged that the ideas, and costs attached to them, were preliminary.

"I'm just kind of making this stuff up," he told other Assembly members.

Starr got some pushback from Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, a staunch Sullivan ally, who at one point questioned whether the spending should be guided by some kind of master plan or broader strategy.

"I'm worried about process here," she said.

"We are the process," Starr responded.

There were a few more tart exchanges over the spending plans, at one point prompting Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson to tell Johnston and Dick Traini: "Okay, kids -- no fighting."

On many measures, the Assembly sides with Sullivan by a 6 to 5 vote. But that majority typically includes Starr, so it seems unlikely that the body will approve the mayoral spending plan for the state grant on Tuesday.

Still, Sullivan said that there are "enough good minds on the Assembly" that members would back his plan.

"Sometimes, you don't know until they push their little button -- green or red," he said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.