Compass: Voters, lawmakers ambushed by tennis project

Tonight, the citizens of Anchorage are likely to see an outcome to the tennis controversy that has taken much of our mayor's time and incited significant controversy. As president of The Alaska Club and leader of an organization that has nurtured tennis around the state of Alaska for more than 27 years, we have had no choice but to engage in this awkward and uncomfortable dialogue. Not only do we want to protect our business from unnecessary government-funded competition, we want to act as an advocate for good government practices, asking important questions about the way decisions are made that affect our community.

Unfortunately, what we've found is not in the best interest of our city and its constituents.

We have attended and engaged in dialogue with the community council, Assembly, Chamber of Commerce and Parks and Recreation for seven months. In addition, we've spoken to city administrators, planners and legislators. As we've spoken with these groups and individuals, one of our primary goals has been to learn more about the planning process, as well as the justification for this $12 million project.

Much to our surprise, we found there were no real plans made before funds were allocated by the Legislature no site selection process, no construction cost analysis and no operating expense analysis. There was no real understanding of the impact the new facility's maintenance costs would have on the Parks and Recreation budget. In addition, we discovered that the Assembly was not consulted or involved in the process before the city began plans to build the facility.

Very few legislators knew they were approving a new indoor tennis complex when they voted on this year's capital appropriations bill. This was due to the similar vague wording that appeared in Proposition 4 of this April's municipal election which also surprisingly provided funds for this project. Even I didn't recognize the brief statement in the body of the proposition that said "resurfacing and replacement of tennis courts" to mean construction of a new indoor tennis facility. In fact, in spite of carefully reading the bond's wording beforehand, looking for traces of this rumored facility, I voted to approve the bond. No voter I have spoken with understood the intent of the language was a new construction project.

The lack of transparency, public review and planning necessary to assure the success of a facility of this scale has prevented the consideration of a facility that would better serve our community. For many months, we have asked the administration to consider the purchase of The Alaska Club tennis facility in north Anchorage. This location, with close proximity to dense housing areas and with various multipurpose rooms, would offer the city greater versatility than the proposed Northern Lights complex at approximately half the cost. Inclusive in the price would be approximately $600,000 in upgrades - new lighting, heating system, accessibility features, remodeled locker rooms, painting and nets. The large property would allow for expansion of the complex beyond what would be possible at the Dempsey Arena. Positioning the municipal tennis complex at the north Anchorage site would also preclude the exasperation of the already difficult parking situation at Dempsey and not interfere with existing master plans for West High School access and redevelopment.

Purchasing the north facility will require a request to the Legislature to reappropriate the funds necessary to make this sale happen. This is the primary reason the administration will not consider this less expensive option. Our opinion is that a review and reappropriation by the Legislature will provide the credibility and transparency necessary to ensure this facility succeeds.

Tonight, the Assembly will vote on which direction to go with tennis in our community. Their choice ultimately comes down to paying more for a facility that offers less, or to seize an opportunity that better serves the public interest. We hope they will carefully consider the options and make a decision that benefits all of Anchorage.

Robert Brewster is president of the The Alaska Club.