Legislature set to redirect tennis court money to W. Anchorage roads

Nathaniel Herz

The state Legislature is poised to quash a contentious proposal to build an indoor tennis center in West Anchorage.

The capital budget, currently awaiting action on the House floor in the final days of the legislative session, takes $4.4 million in state money for the tennis project and instead puts it towards paving and other road projects in the district of Rep. Lindsey Holmes, R-Anchorage.

Holmes had been one of the original backers of the tennis project, along with Mayor Dan Sullivan.

The facility, which was proposed to be adjacent to the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena in the Turnagain neighborhood, had been dogged by controversy since the Legislature granted funding for it last spring.

Several legislators said they had been unaware that the project -- which was under a line item for "deferred and critical maintenance" -- was included in the capital budget when they voted on it. And House Finance Committee co-chair Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he had envisioned a cheaper tennis center than Sullivan ultimately proposed to the Anchorage Assembly.

"This thing was so clouded with problems -- I think all originating from the eighth floor of City Hall," Stoltze said, referring to the floor that houses Sullivan's office.

Sullivan responded that if Stoltze had wanted to earmark a specific amount of money for the tennis center, "he had the opportunity to do so."

"I'm not the Legislature," Sullivan said. "I don't appropriate the money."

Over the last several months, the tennis project had been under attack by both state and city elected officials.

Some Assembly members complained they hadn't been consulted about the tennis project, and tried to pare down the amount of state money that the city would use to build it.

At the state level, legislators this month had tried to strip the funding for the tennis courts, and to reallocate it to renovations for Anchorage's Loussac Library.

Then, the money was frozen by the state department charged with administering the grant, following legal questions raised by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage -- who is running for lieutenant governor in the Republican primary against Sullivan.

The freeze forced work to stop on other projects tied to the $37 million state package that had included the tennis money.

"The more this thing got spun up, all the fighting at the Assembly level, the back-and-forth, and then the money being frozen," Holmes said in an interview. "It made too many of my colleagues uncomfortable."

The House reappropriated the tennis money to road projects in its version of the capital budget released Sunday.

Sullivan announced the move at the Assembly's meeting on Tuesday evening, joking that West Anchorage, where he lives, would "have the best roads in the whole city."

"The Legislature giveth, and the Legislature taketh away," he said in a subsequent interview.

Sullivan, a tennis player and former coach, had personally pushed for the state grant funding, and for the construction of the tennis center.

But, asked if he was frustrated with the Legislature's move to reappropriate the money, he responded that "it's probably frustrating for the Alaska Tennis Association."

That's the group that had formally advocated for the tennis project last year.

The ATA had sent representatives to Juneau to lobby, then rallied dozens of tennis players to demonstrate and testify at Assembly meetings in the fall.

President Allen Clendaniel said he had been hearing rumors that the state money for the tennis center was in danger of being pulled; he even sent a personal email to Stoltze, but received no response, he said.

"It just astounds me that that amount of energy was necessary, and that it ultimately failed," he said. "Somehow, the great sport of tennis just became a symbol for either people who didn't like the mayor, or people who don't like government spending."

Clendaniel said he hoped that the Legislature could ultimately revisit the project, but acknowledged that it's unlikely that would happen quickly.

"We need a low-cost tennis center, whether it's owned by a nonprofit or is a municipal facility," he said. "The question is, how do we get the funding for it?"

Stoltze said that state money could be available in the future, but added that any grant "will certainly be done a lot more cautiously, and with certainty about what's being funded."

Turnagain Community Council President Bill Wortman said that there were some residents in his area that had been excited about the tennis project -- primarily players and coaches. And the community council had passed a resolution supporting the facility.

But Wortman said that people would also be excited about the $4.4 million in road work coming their way.

"I think there's probably a lot more people concerned about roads than tennis," he said. "I'm not necessarily against tennis courts, but I certainly want the pothole on my street fixed. Especially since it was about two feet deep."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.