There are certain rules of decorum you need to follow if you’re going to go to an assembly meeting. You need to sign up if you want to speak. You need to keep your comments short. And you need to put away all sporting gear, as Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall reminded the audience Tuesday night.
“I’m going to ask that all the individuals that brought tennis racquets this evening during the break to please have those removed.”
The place looked like a tennis training camp because the assembly was deciding whether to use state funding to build a new indoor tennis facility. The $10.5-million earmark has become a lightning rod because the city didn’t ask for it and many lawmakers thought the money was being used for other purposes.
If there is one thing everyone at the meeting could agree on, it’s this:
“Tennis is an incredible game that builds character.”
“It is a fun game.”
“Tennis is my favorite sport.”
Tennis keeps people active, it cuts down on obesity, and there are lots of benefits to having tennis courts that can be used year round by anyone, no matter what their income level. Dislike of tennis is not why the Anchorage Assembly is considering rejecting a state grant to build indoor courts near the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena. Instead, it’s a question of process, says Assembly Member Bill Starr.
“It wasn’t transparent enough, and it also wasn’t assembly directed.”
Every legislative session, cities across Alaska put together their wish lists for capital projects. The Anchorage Assembly didn’t have anything about indoor tennis courts in their request. The ask was instead made by Mayor Dan Sullivan, by the Alaska Tennis Association, and by the community council in the area.
Starr’s other problem with the funding is this: If you look at the state capital budget, the money was put in with a line that reads “Project 80s Deferred and Critical Maintenance.” Most of that funding is going toward repairs to older city buildings, like the skating rink. Starr thinks that legislators got hoodwinked when they approved a project that went beyond renovations.
“I also believe that some of the folks in Juneau — that’s what they thought they were approving. And so when you see that it’s diverging into a brand new $10.5 million standalone facility, that’s a challenge point for me.”
Mayor Sullivan doesn’t think it should be. He says rejecting the money on the basis of process would be punitive to the tennis players and community members who want the project to go ahead.
“It’s a minor point. It’s a technicality. And it’s kind of irrelevant, quite frankly, because the bottom line is the legislature intended for the Tennis Association to get money for a facility.”
So, who’s right? Did the legislature want the money to go toward tennis courts or not? I e-mailed all 60 legislators to see if they knew where the money was going when they voted on the capital budget. Of the 23 who got back to me before deadline, one said he was aware there was money for tennis courts in the budget, but he didn’t know the assembly wasn’t on board. A couple said they didn’t know about the tennis courts, but that they trusted the legislature’s finance committees to vet projects for worthiness. The rest said they simply had no idea it was in there.
Because capital budgets are expected to shrink over the next few years with a major tax cut on oil and declining production, the appropriation elicited harsh words from some. Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican who is running against Mayor Sullivan in the Lieutenant Governor’s race, takes special issue with the funding.
“[Sullivan] came to me and asked if I would put it in and I said no! The whole Senate said no. So then he went to the house and got one member to agree to use a re-appropriation that was meant for much needed project 80s work in order to reclassify this,” wrote McGuire in an e-mail. ”Essentially – the whole thing stinks”
But the members of the public who came out for the assembly meeting said the project should go through anyway. Nearly 50 people testified, and almost all of them were tennis players who said that Anchorage would benefit from having a public tennis facility that people could use year round without having to take on an expensive gym membership.
“The trouble is we live in a northern, rainy climate, and between the rain and our winter climate all those thousands of kids who are in the tennis programs don’t have any place to play in the winter,” testified Bill Bittner, a member of the U.S. Tennis Association and the Anchorage Park Foundation. Because they are no public indoor courts in Alaska, many made the point that low- and even middle-income players are shut out of the sport for most of the year. That could limit young players to compete and become higher-level athletes.
Robert Brewster one of the few opposed to the project. He owns the Alaska Club, a chain of fitness centers that offers the only indoor courts in Anchorage.
“This is not really a referendum on whether tennis is important or tennis is good for the community,” said Brewster. “The question is whether this particular facility is necessary.”
Brewster has offered to sell one of his facilities to the City of Anchorage. In his testimony, he argued that there is not enough demand to build new courts, and that as it is, the Alaska Club’s courts are in use just a fraction of the time that they’re open.
“There doesn’t seem to be any reason that there’s going to be a sudden flood of additional people playing tennis,” said Brewster. An audience member interrupted him to say that the low tennis participation was due to the Alaska Club’s high prices.
In the end, the Anchorage decided to put the issue on hold. They unanimously approved a measure allowing the city to accept $26.5 million in Project 80s money for upgrades to older buildings, but set aside the $10.5 million meant for the tennis courts. They’ll reconsider their position on the tennis courts at their October 22 meeting.
Daysha Eaton contributed reporting to this story.