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City tennis courts set to expand

With a boost in membership, the St. Petersburg Tennis Center gets ready to grow.

JON WILSON
Published February 11, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - Close to closing three years ago, the St. Petersburg Tennis Center is off the ropes and planning to expand - perhaps to the tune of $2.5-million.

More lighted courts and a renovated clubhouse with double the space are the top priorities, said Mike Carroll, president of the foundation that runs the Midtown serve-and-volley mecca.

The center, 650 18th Ave. S next to Bartlett Park, boasts a booming youth program that has grown to 195 members. The adult membership has reached 120.

The numbers nearly wash away memories of some bad old days.

In August of 2001, adult members had dropped to 13, and programs for youngsters struggled. The city threatened to close the center.

The nonprofit Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg took over, launched a promotional campaign and gained a First Serve program for children, among other efforts.

"They've had lots of success bringing in youth," said Lee Metzger, city services administrator.

Voters in November extended the center's lease with the city to 20 years. That paved the way for the center to accept more grants to pay for expansion.

If grants come through - and each is subject to City Council approval - work could start this fall, Carroll said.

It would be accomplished in phases to minimize inconvenience to players, he said. Ideally, the number of lighted courts would jump from four to as many as 13. It would mean increased membership on both youth and adult levels.

The quest for more lights aims to fill a critical need - but its very necessity is a source of satisfaction to the foundation.

"We're looking for more lights, and 21/2 years ago, I was told by some folks around tennis that we probably should just take out the lights because no one will come to Bartlett Park after dark," Carroll said.

At work was a version of the stigma that sometimes attaches to Midtown sites.

"We have had absolutely no problem in any way toward any person or any property of anyone who has been there," Carroll said.

"We're overturning a misconception."

The youth program provided surprises, too.

When the foundation first approached the city about a lease, its leaders promised a revived center would attract 20 youngsters per afternoon. "They thought we were crazy, that we were overpromising," said Carroll. But 40 to 70 show up regularly every day, he said.

About 80 percent of the total youth membership are from Midtown neighborhoods, with the remainder coming from throughout the city, he said.

Besides tennis instruction, the youth program offers a classroom with 20 computers, a teacher and volunteers to help with homework.

Carroll said expansion of the 450-square-foot clubhouse by about 900 square feet would improve crowded classroom conditions. "But that building is tired," he said. "More than tired. It's crumbling."

Better restroom and shower facilities are on the list of imperatives as the clubhouse undergoes renovation, Carroll said.

The foundation would like to include in its expansion plans four hard courts in Bartlett Park. If that happens, those courts would remain free to the public, Carroll and Metzger both affirmed.

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