Assembly hears 2 hours of testimony, puts off decision on tennis courts vs. ice arenas

Nathaniel Herz

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday heard two hours of testimony on a dispute over whether to spend millions of dollars in state grant money on new indoor tennis courts or upgrades at city ice arenas -- but it put off making a decision until later in November.

The monthlong debate over the grant culminated with the Assembly's meeting on Tuesday evening, where a stream of anxious tennis players testified in favor of the courts and a handful of residents registered their opposition. And in a sign of how high-profile the dispute has become, a pair of Assembly members said they'd turned down opportunities to talk with tennis legends including sisters Venus and Serena Williams, and Andre Agassi.

"I didn't call them back," said Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, who got a phone message offering to put her in touch with the players from a man who identified himself as a former staffer for Gov. Walter Hickel. "They're not my constituency, and I didn't feel like they had much to add to the discussion."

Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson recounted a similar story at Tuesday's meeting, infuriating tennis players, dozens of whom had turned out to their second meeting in the last month.

In testimony before the Assembly on Tuesday, they told stories of their own histories with the sport, and its benefits -- urging members to set aside their concerns about what some have characterized as a flawed process of obtaining the state grant. The money came from the Legislature at the request of the Alaska Tennis Association, with the backing of Mayor Dan Sullivan, and Assemblyman Bill Starr and others have complained that they never had a chance to weigh in.

"It seems we are in the middle of something that has nothing to do with tennis," said Whitney Williams, the reigning state champion in girls high school tennis. "Please forget about your likes and dislikes of assemblymen and women, or the mayor."

A few others, like Phil Isley, said they had reservations, whether about traffic and parking, or about putting a proposed $8.5 million toward a new recreation facility when there are other city buildings that they said need work.

"I'd like you to spend this money on other things, to take care of what we have," Isley said. If that's not possible, he added: "Then give it back."

There are two competing proposals that would determine the fate of the money, and the Assembly postponed votes on them until its next meeting. 

One proposal, sponsored by Sullivan, would dedicate $8.5 million of the $37 million grant to the tennis courts, and about $18.5 million to renovations at three city ice arenas. (There's also $4 million in the grant for another arena in Eagle River and $5 million for the Anchorage Museum that's not up for dispute.)

A second measure, sponsored by Starr, would use most of the tennis court money for additional upgrades on the city ice arenas, bringing the total spending on them to $26 million -- plus $1 million more for refurbishing some of the city's outdoor courts.

It's unclear how the Assembly will vote. But Patrick Flynn, who had been undecided on the two proposals, said in a phone interview after he left Tuesday's meeting that he did not think that Starr's proposal, or even a compromise measure between Starr's and Sullivan's, would fulfill the intent of the Legislature. 

Flynn said the grant money can be spent solely on items outlined in a backup document called a TPS Report -- and only Sullivan's measure does that, he added.

"I don't see that we have another option," he said.

The Assembly will revisit the two measures, and take more public testimony, at its next meeting, on Nov. 19.