At a Friday work session in Anchorage City Hall, Assembly members grilled Mayor Dan Sullivan about a $10.5 million grant from the state to build indoor tennis and basketball courts in the Turnagain neighborhood in West Anchorage. The money was appropriated as part of a larger, $37 million deferred maintenance request by the city. Many Assembly members opposed the tennis court plan and said they were surprised it showed up on the funding request proposed to the Legislature earlier this year.
Friday's work session included a power-point presentation from the mayor defending the proposed indoor tennis facility -- to be called the Northern Lights Recreation Center. It would be built next to the Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena, on Northern Lights Boulevard. The center would house six indoor courts, two half-courts for basketball and some changing rooms.
But many question the need for more tennis courts in Alaska's largest city. Anchorage currently has nine indoor courts -- all owned by The Alaska Club, which has facilities throughout the state. The company said it loses money on tennis, and that its indoor courts are used less than 25 percent of the time. The Alaska Club opposes the construction of the Northern Lights Recreation Center, believing city shouldn't compete with private businesses.
Brewster: Indoor tennis 'ghost town' in summer
Since the indoor tennis facility funding has come to light, Alaska Club president Robert Brewster said he has approached the city with an offer to sell some of his indoor courts. Alaska Club North, a 43,000-square-foot building on Bragaw Street that houses five tennis courts, is currently for sale. Brewster said the Alaska Club initially wanted to sell it with the stipulation that it not be used as a fitness facility because, "we didn't want to set up our competition." But when company officials heard about the Northern Lights Recreation Center plan, it offered its tennis courts to the municipality as an alternative.
As for the city's estimate that its proposed indoor tennis courts will at least break even with an annual average occupancy of over 30 percent, Brewster had a warning.
"Be careful when looking at utilization," he said. "In the summer it's going to be a ghost town. People want to play outside, so you are really looking at revenue numbers that are much lower than what is being described here," he said.
Besides hidden costs, some Anchorage Assembly members said they opposed the plan because it was not specifically identified in the funding request that went before the Legislature in Juneau.
"It surprised the assembly," said Eagle River/Chugiak Assemblyman Bill Starr. "I believe Juneau was hoodwinked on the decision."
The $10.5 million for the Northern Lights Recreation Center was included in the city's appeal for deferred and critical maintenance funding for Project 80s facilities -- municipal owned sports and recreation centers like Sullivan Arena and the neighboring Ben Boeke Ice Arena. Both were built in the 1980s.
The Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena -- where the new indoor facility would be built -- is among the Project 80s buildings. Money to upgrade the Dempsey-Anderson ice rink refrigeration system was included in the Project 80s funding request.
Synergy with Dempsey-Anderson rinks
Although the tennis and basketball facility would be a new building, Sullivan said it was added to the Project 80s list because it would be located next to the Dempsey-Anderson rinks, creating synergy with upgrades already planned at the rink. Sullivan said money for the tennis courts was requested by the Alaska Tennis Association, and added into the Legislature's Project 80s funding request before before the measure was considered by legislators. Once built, the facility would be self-supporting, Sullivan said, adding that it is an extremely underserved sport in Anchorage.
"In Anchorage, we provide public indoor rec for everything except tennis," Sullivan said. "We provide indoor opportunities for swimming, rugby, football, ice hockey, skating, martial arts, basketball, weightlifting, yoga, and even Zumba."
Sullivan cited 2012 numbers from the Physical Activity Council -- a national physical fitness advocacy group -- that show tennis growing nationally at a rate of 31 percent from 2000 to 2012. Other sports like baseball (down 19 percent) hockey (down 3 percent) and basketball (down 11 percent) are in declining, according to the council's report.
Money has already been allocated by the Alaska Legislature, and if changes are made to the plans, the $10.5 million would have to be re-appropriated, according to Sullivan.
"We have the funding now; we need to use it," the mayor said.
Assembly members are working on a plan of their own to separate money targeted for the proposed Northern Lights Recreation Center from the rest of the $26.5 million the municipality received from the Legislature -- money to upgrade the Sullivan Arena and other city-owned sports facilities. The issue will be one of the main topics at the Oct. 8 Assembly meeting Tuesday night.
"We don't want to hold the rest of the money hostage, over the tennis courts," said Starr.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com