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Latest volley over indoor tennis facility targets city bond funding

Nathaniel Herz

An Anchorage Assembly member is trying to stop Mayor Dan Sullivan's administration from spending a $500,000 pot of city money on the controversial tennis center proposed for the Turnagain neighborhood.

The money comes from the $2.5 million parks bond approved in April 2013. The bond's ballot language said that some of the cash would be used for "replacement" of the city's existing tennis courts, which currently are all outdoors. The mayor is pushing for an indoor facility.

Assemblyman Bill Starr says that the Sullivan administration never made clear to the Assembly, or to voters, that the city intended to build an entirely new indoor facility.

"To me, 'replacement' is, 'Hey, we're broken, we're going to replace them,'" Starr said. "Here we are spending on a new project."

Mayor Dan Sullivan disagreed.

"I don't think replacing tennis courts is not transparent," he said in an interview Friday. "How do you replace a court? Well, you build one somewhere else."

He added that it made sense to replace outdoor courts with an indoor facility that could be used for 12 months a year.

The tennis facility, which would be built next to the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena off West Northern Lights Boulevard, has been a subject of city- and state-level debate since last fall.

Starr had previously argued that state legislators were "hoodwinked" into approving a $37 million grant that included the project. Last winter the Assembly voted to earmark just $4.4 million of the money for the tennis facility -- millions less than the Sullivan administration and tennis boosters had originally asked for.

Earlier this month, Anchorage state Sen. Lesil McGuire, who's running against Sullivan to be the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, made her own proposal to divert the state money to renovations at the Loussac Library in Midtown.

The $37 million state grant that includes the $4.4 million for the tennis facility is currently suspended pending a review, in the wake of legal questions raised by McGuire.

Sullivan, a tennis player and former high school coach, personally backs the project. But he says it was driven by the Anchorage Tennis Association, and that key Republican legislators had been aware of the grant funding's presence in the state capital budget when it was approved last year.

The latest volley over the project stems from last April's $2.5 million parks bond.

The measure included money for the Veterans' Memorial on the Park Strip and repairs to the Chester Creek Trail.

When the bond language initially went to the Assembly for approval in January 2013, the original text also mentioned "resurfacing" of tennis courts, with no mention of "replacement."

But at a meeting two weeks later, amended language substituted by the Sullivan administration -- language that was ultimately approved by the Assembly -- added the "replacement" term as well.

Starr, who was phoning in to the meeting, said he didn't notice the change, and didn't think any of his colleagues had, either.

"If it had said, 'We want to build six indoor tennis courts at a price of $10 million,' I think I would have picked up on that," he said. "I didn't catch it until later on, when we said, 'Where the heck did this project come from?' "

Asked if his administration had tried to conceal the plans for the indoor tennis project, Sullivan responded, "No, I don't think so at all."

"This is in the bond bills that went before the Assembly. There was certainly a public hearing on it," he said. "Bill's chairman of the Budget Committee -- if he didn't read through it, I don't know what to say about that."

The city has already spent $63,000 in parks bond money on the tennis project; $25,000 went to an engineering company for design services and $38,000 went for relocation of utilities, according to information provided by the Sullivan administration to Assemblyman Paul Honeman.

Another $495,000 is set aside for construction. Starr said it's his goal to stop that money from being spent.

The Assembly will consider Starr's proposal at its meeting on Tuesday.

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


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com