Assembly approves $4.4 million for W. Anchorage rec center, tennis courts

Casey Grove

Update, 8:30 p.m.: The Anchorage Assembly has approved a plan to spend $4.4 million in state funds on a multi-use, indoor sports facility in West Anchorage after months of consideration and about two hours of debate and amendments Tuesday night. The facility will include tennis courts. 

Alaska Tennis Association President Allen Clendaniel said he and other association members were disappointed -- they had originally asked the state Legislature for $7.2 million -- but said they were glad to have a decision on the funds.

"If I had to describe the last few minutes, all I can say is 'bizarre,'" Clendaniel said just after the Assembly's vote. "Democracy, I guess, isn't always pretty."

Today's previous story:

The debate raged on Tuesday over whether a grant from the Alaska Legislature can be used to build an indoor recreation center with tennis courts in West Anchorage.

Lawmakers on both sides released legal opinions Tuesday on the proposed complex in the Turnagain neighborhood -- designed to house tennis, basketball and volleyball courts -- hours before an Anchorage Assembly meeting set to decide the issue. For months, the ongoing dispute has locked up $37 million that the state appropriated to the Municipality of Anchorage for a variety of projects. Assembly members must vote to accept the entire pot of money, but reaching an agreement on what portion will go to the Turnagain complex has proved difficult.

"I would like to get this tennis court thing done once and for all," Assembly Chair Ernie Hall said in a phone interview before the meeting. "As a person on the Assembly, I'm embarrassed this took more than two meetings. We've got really important things we should be dealing with."

But the issue is important, some say, because the municipality might be breaking the law if it spends the money on a stand-alone sports complex instead of on maintenance for existing buildings.

The millions of dollars the state is giving to the municipality was specifically earmarked for "critical and deferred maintenance" on a set of big infrastructure projects constructed in the 1980s, wrote legislative counsel Hilary Martin in her legal opinion. Anchorage Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Berta Gardner, both Democrats, released Martin's memo along with a written statement to reporters Tuesday morning.

Originally, a big chunk of that money was aimed at expanding and repairing the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena on Northern Lights Boulevard near Minnesota Drive.

"A new building does not seem to be to be deferred and critical maintenance," Martin wrote. "A new building would also not seem to be a Project 80s building. In my opinion, construction of a new facility for tennis courts would not be within the scope of the appropriation."

Because of the legal issues, using the appropriation to build new courts would also put the municipality at risk of a lawsuit, and taxpayers might end up footing the full bill for the facility if a suit against the project was successful, Wielechowski said in a phone interview.

"That's the real problem that the municipality faces, that they can go ahead and try to use this money for tennis courts, but if they do, there's a good chance it's illegal and they're going to have to pay that money back to the state, because it violates the grant," Wielechowski said.

That's not true, said Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, a supporter of the project. Another legal opinion from a legislative affairs attorney in 2010, released by City Hall on Tuesday, says that if the appropriation for a project does not "explicitly address an issue," the agency receiving the money can rely on the project summaries as backup material to help understand the Legislature's intent.

The 2010 opinion was written on another issue, but the mayor's office said it was relevant to the rec center construction.

Sullivan pointed to another document that he said boosted his case: an October 2013 letter from the director of the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs, which administers and oversees state grants. In the letter, Scott Ruby wrote that the project summary for the $37 million appropriation is "very clear" that the Legislature's intent was to fund the new indoor, multi-use courts.

Asked if the more-recent legislative legal opinion carried more weight, Sullivan said no.

"Newer means nothing. The point of the matter is that the agency that actually administers these grants is whose legal opinion is probably more viable," Sullivan said. "You can get any legal opinion you want."

The analysis that Wielechowski and Gardner released Tuesday was politically motivated, Sullivan said. The mayor disagreed that the legal questions raised in the memo opened the municipality up to a lawsuit.

Hall, the Assembly chair, said he expected the 11-member Assembly to ignore the conflicting legal opinions and have a final vote on previous proposals up for reconsideration.

"I'm just hopeful that the votes will be there to make a decision," Hall said.

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4343