New proposal would ask voters to approve tennis court funding

Nathaniel Herz
Erik Hill

City voters would get the final say on whether to use state grant money for the construction of indoor tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood, under a new plan from Assemblywoman Amy Demboski.

Demboski, who represents Eagle River and Chugiak, wants to tie the spending to a ballot proposition that would go before voters at April's municipal election. The proposition would ask Anchorage residents if they support a bond to pay for the courts' construction, operation and maintenance costs not covered by state funding.

Estimates have ranged as high as $12 million for the construction cost of a recreation center housing the courts. Demboski's proposal is expected to include about $5 million in state grant funding.

"Though the Legislature may have intended for us to build a tennis facility, they didn't ask the voters if they were willing to pay for it for the next 40 years," Demboski said in a phone interview. "Sometimes, we have to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' I think the appropriate people to make that decision are not the 11 people on the Assembly."

If voters reject the bond proposition, the state money would be redistributed to aging city buildings for improvements, according to a resolution Demboski plans to submit for a vote at the Assembly's next meeting, on Tuesday.

Assemblyman Ernie Hall, who represents the area in West Anchorage where the courts would be located, said he plans to co-sponsor Demboski's proposal, which he hopes to tweak to allow tennis boosters to contribute private funding toward construction costs.

He said he would prefer a competing measure that Mayor Dan Sullivan introduced last week, which would put $7.2 million towards the tennis courts without asking for voter approval.

"But I don't know if the votes can be gotten to do that," Hall said. The Assembly defeated a proposal similar to Sullivan's at its last meeting.

Sullivan did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday. His spokeswoman said he was in Washington, D.C., on city business, but she could not provide details.

Allen Clendaniel, the president of the Alaska Tennis Association, said Demboski's proposal struck him as unfair, given that the Assembly has approved spending state money on renovations to city ice arenas without asking voters to approve bonds to pay for maintaining and operating those facilities.

"It just seems like she's setting the whole thing up to prove a point," he said.

Asked about the gap between the proposed state funding and the likely price tag for the recreation center, Clendanial maintained that according to the tennis association's research, its original request, for $7.2 million, would be enough to cover construction.

"The 7.2 gets you so close that it's in the same ballpark," Clendaniel said. "We never wanted to increase peoples' property taxes as a result of this."

Other Assembly members said they were open to Demboski's idea, including Tim Steele, who shares Hall's district, and Dick Traini, who represents Midtown.

Steele said he still thinks the city should put more of the state money -- at least $7 million -- toward the recreation center. (The grant funding will otherwise be distributed to other aging city buildings, like ice arenas.)

But, Steele added: "I kind of like the idea of having voters vote on it."

Steele said he had not yet seen Demboski's proposal, and hadn't decided whether he would support that measure, or Sullivan's.

Traini said he thought Demboski's idea was "feasible."

"Let's take a look at it," he said. "I'm more than happy to go to the voters."

Demboski's proposal comes after the Assembly rejected two different proposals at its meeting last week to determine how the money would be spent.

One, sponsored by Steele, would have put $7.7 million toward the recreation center. That measure failed by a vote of 6 to 5.

The second, sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Starr, who also represents Chugiak and Eagle River, would have set aside $4 million for the recreation center. It also failed, 6 to 5.

Demboski was the only member to oppose both measures. After the meeting, she filed a motion to reconsider Starr's proposal.

She said she had done so after learning that renovations to city ice arenas would be delayed until the Assembly approved a spending plan for the state grant money.

The Assembly has spent more than two months debating whether to use the state money for the tennis courts.

The dispute has focused on the intent of the Legislature, which passed a capital budget last spring that gave the city an unspecified amount of money for the recreation center housing the courts, as part of a $37 million grant.

The tennis association, with Sullivan's support, had distributed a packet with its request for $7.2 million. But the co-chair of the House's finance committee said he was only asked for $4 million, by another lawmaker, and had not seen the tennis association's proposal.

If the Assembly approves Demboski's measure, it's possible that Sullivan could veto it. If he doesn't, the funding for the tennis courts would likely face an uphill battle at the ballot box, both Hall and Steele said.

"I think the tennis association would need to do a lot of work to get a bond passed," Hall said. "I think it would be possible to do it, but it wouldn't be a slam dunk -- by no stretch of the imagination."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.