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Game isn't over for tennis center, foundation hopes

The private group strives to slash the city's subsidy and persuades the council to explore keeping the facility open for another year.

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- City Council members gave St. Petersburg Tennis Center a slice of hope Tuesday morning, agreeing to look at the possibility of keeping it open with the help of a money-raising foundation created by local tennis players.

The Tennis Foundation of St. Petersburg, a nonprofit group of about 40 people organized four weeks ago to save the tennis center, said it would take responsibility for attracting new people to the Bartlett Park facility and cutting the city's subsidy. It proposed a 30 percent reduction of the city's share to $84,000 the first year and 25 percent cuts over the next two years.

"I'd love to say we could do it without the city, but that would be irresponsible," said Mike Carroll, one of several who spoke to council members during a subcommittee meeting Tuesday morning. He is also chief financial officer of the St. Petersburg Times.

Mayor Rick Baker's administration had recommended closing the clay court facility at 650 18th Ave. S in Bartlett Park and turning it into grass parkland. The city has subsidized the center for the past seven years, and Baker's proposed budget does not include the $125,000 to $150,000 needed for the next year.

The tennis center, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, largely caters to white players drawn by the city's only public clay courts. Leaders of the Tennis Foundation, which claims to have raised $26,000 to help cover expenses at the facility, pointed to the center's location and the prospect of a racially diverse membership as an asset in their proposal to the council.

"For over 60 years, the Tennis Center has been a prominent part of the tennis community despite its Midtown location," the group's proposal states. "Now is the time to embrace the opportunities this location offers. This facility is ideally situated to be a model grass-roots tennis center."

Neighborhood leaders agreed.

"We have a chance now to bridge the gap in the way of racial relations," said Charles Payne, president of the Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association. "This is a chance for our neighborhood to come together and bond."

But city staffers said they had made many attempts to draw tennis players from the surrounding neighborhoods, which prompted some council members to ask the Tennis Foundation what they might do better. The center's tennis pro, Doug Woods, is black and offers youth programs to neighborhood residents and others.

"What are you going to do so differently?" asked council member Earnest Williams. "Even if you have everything in place, you have to have people utilize the facility -- not just people in the area, but people in the entire city. I'm not sure if I see that in your marketing plan."

Though no council members voiced outright support for keeping the tennis center, several seemed to want to work with the Tennis Foundation and give it a chance to revive the facility, at least for a year. Only council member Bill Foster spoke out against it, saying the city's budget was too tight to support the facility for another year.

Foster did agree to send the group's proposal to the city's administration to see whether it can come up with the money. That report would come back to the City Council at one of its budget hearings, scheduled for Thursday night or Sept. 13. The council can make changes to the budget during the public hearings.

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