Anchorage tennis court debate comes down to the wire

Nathaniel Herz

The debate over the construction of indoor tennis courts in West Anchorage is coming down to the wire, with last-minute meetings Monday between Mayor Dan Sullivan and Assembly members over a Tuesday vote on a state grant that has splintered the city's regular political alliances.

Several of Sullivan's usual backers on the Assembly are poised to break with him over the use of $8.5 million from the state capital budget. Sullivan is lobbying for the construction of new indoor tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood, while Assembly members Bill Starr, Amy Demboski and Adam Trombley are likely to support a measure that would spend most of the money on upgrades and renovations to city ice arenas.

Meanwhile, two of Sullivan's typical Assembly opponents, Tim Steele and Patrick Flynn, say they remain undecided -- with Steele hoping to craft a compromise between the two factions. The pair has been subjected to pressure from tennis players, from friendly lobbying at Flynn's neighborhood bakery, from a student petition delivered to Steele, and by an opinion piece in Tuesday's Daily News from tennis icon Billie Jean King.

"I'm at a quandary," Steele said in a phone interview Monday. "I would like to find a negotiated settlement."

The $8.5 million was part of a $37 million grant approved by the Legislature last spring. At the request of the Alaska Tennis Association and with Sullivan's support, lawmakers agreed to pay for the courts but they didn't specify how much money from the grant should be spent on them. Instead, they left that decision to the city.

The Assembly on Tuesday will consider two competing measures. One, sponsored by Sullivan, dedicates the $8.5 million to an indoor recreation center in Turnagain that would include the tennis courts.

The other, sponsored by Starr, would split the money between upgrades at three city hockey arenas and renovations to some of the city's outdoor tennis courts.

Starr and other members have complained that the request for the money for the indoor courts came without their consent, and that funding them would come at the expense of needed work at the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena in Turnagain, and the Ben Boeke and Sullivan arenas in Fairview -- which were built in the 1970s and '80s.

The arenas already stand to get at least $18.5 million for core renovations and upgrades to outdated components like ice-making systems, but Starr wants to add things like changing rooms, storage, a scoreboard and, at Dempsey-Anderson Arena, a new $1.75 million mezzanine level for spectators.

Sullivan maintains that his proposal includes all the renovations needed at the arenas, and that the extra upgrades in Starr's measure will get money in the future.

Sullivan said in an interview that he met on Monday with Assembly members, though he wouldn't say which ones.

He said it "looks like there's maybe some movement towards a compromise" between his measure and Starr's. But he added that he wanted to be careful about diverting money from the tennis courts.

"If you leave it short-funded, you don't have a project at all," he said. "So you've got to be cautious -- if those numbers are going to shift, it needs to be done very carefully, and judiciously."

Steele said he thought Starr's proposal had "a little bit more in it, for each facility, than I think is necessary," and was exploring on Monday whether it would be possible to strip out some of the money Starr had earmarked for the arenas and use it to partially fund the indoor tennis courts. More money could come from private sources, or even a bond issue, said Steele, who represents the district where the courts would go.

Flynn said he was still weighing the two sides.

He would prefer to use the state money to buy an existing tennis facility that the Alaska Club is already trying to sell on the north side of town, he said in a phone interview. But that option has been ruled out by state officials, who maintain that the legislative grant was intended to build new courts.

"I think we could have approached this more elegantly than we have," Flynn said. "Now we've got this somewhat convoluted situation that we're trying to muddle through without looking like goofballs, and it's consumed far more time and energy than it should have."

He said that he'd been under "nonstop" pressure from tennis players -- one of whom spotted him at a local bakery and joked about naming the facility the "Patrick Flynn Memorial Tennis Courts."

Flynn added that something "still didn't feel right" about how the money for the new tennis courts had come as part of a package in the capital budget earmarked as "Project '80s Deferred and Critical Maintenance." Project '80s facilities, like the Sullivan Arena, were built during the oil-money boom that followed construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline.

Flynn met Monday afternoon with Rep. Lindsey Holmes, who had helped get the money for the tennis courts into the capital budget in Juneau.

Holmes said she met with both Flynn and Demboski, and expected to talk with more Assembly members before Tuesday's meeting to answer their questions about the legislative process.

"It can be confusing from the outside," she said in a phone interview. "I think in the seven years I've been down in the Legislature, we've made great strides in making it more transparent." But, she added, "It's still sort of a black box, to some extent, from the outside."

Billie Jean King's support came through the efforts of an Alaska Tennis Association member who contacted the 39-time Grand Slam champion, according to Sullivan.

Her opinion piece acknowledged that there was "some opposition" to the courts but argued that the Alaska Tennis Association has been transparent about its plans.

"If you build this new indoor facility on the Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena campus, you will make a meaningful difference in the lives of your citizens -- young and old -- through tennis and increased physical activity," she wrote.

It's still unclear, however, whether King's request will be heeded by the Assembly.

Regardless of the vote, it's clear that some Assembly members are eager to get the dispute resolved. Jennifer Johnston, who represents South Anchorage, said she avoided Monday's meetings after growing frustrated with the competing proposals and questions being batted around by the Assembly.

"I said a couple of weeks ago, 'Just leave me out of this,' " she said. "I'm done."

She said she's waiting to see whether a compromise emerges but is inclined to vote against Starr's measure.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.