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Mayor Sullivan's Affordable Tennis Act

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Lest it be forgotten, the saying is true: The world is ruled by the people who show up.
That democratic principle is less judicious than it may sound. Most of us can’t afford frequent trips to Washington D.C. to “show up” and participate in lawmaking, or fly to Juneau during the 30-day legislative session. A lot of us can’t afford to take the time off work or away from family to appeal to the Anchorage Assembly. Thus, we get a lot of public policy that doesn’t reflect those “American people” we hear elected officials talking about all the time. We hear, instead, the wishes of the people who show up.
So, when I heard about funds carved out of last year’s state budget for the construction of indoor tennis courts in Turnagain, I wasn’t all that surprised. Despite the reflexive (and legitimate) cries of cronyism, this is how most proposals become policy. A small but excited majority organizes, pressures, and achieves a legislative goal. These are the people who show up because they can and others can’t. Those who can afford to show up generally can – and do – contribute the most to campaigns (if you are trying to find them, watch for whoever south side assemblyman Chris Birch is complimenting at any given meeting).
This is the group who, much of the time, gets what they want. And they want tennis courts.
The Anchorage tennis community successfully secured $10.5 million, which Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan is trying to now appropriate. And his timing could not be worse.
As the mayor heads into what could be his final year (Sullivan is running for lieutenant governor on the 2014 ballot), the wheels are coming off. New crimes statistics, released in October, show “increases in murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor-vehicle theft, and larceny and theft.” Arguably his most high profile piece of legislation, a labor law rewrite that severely curbs union rights and pay, was pushed through, despite overwhelming objection. The city is now fighting a referendum vote in court.
The looming municipal elections in April could see the end of his supportive majority. That could spell disaster for legacy projects years in the works, such as his massive Ship Creek revitalization plan and a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics. Not to mention his candidacy.
But the questions at the root of the proposed tennis courts are important beyond electoral politics.
Funding for the construction of public courts in a new site adjacent to the Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena was not included as a priority by the Turnagain community council. The legislature, however, listed it as such. They were also rolled into the same pot that pays for critical repairs and maintenance for the city’s Project 80’s, which is a pretty big stretch.
The non-profit Alaska Tennis Association’s effort, which resulted in the state grant, would like people to spend much less time thinking about that, and more about their belief that the only indoor tennis courts in the municipality, owned and operated by the Alaska Club, are too expensive and are hurting the sport.
At the October 8 meeting, supporters gathered in the lower chambers of the Loussac library to advocate for the plan. They wore buttons with anthropomorphic smiling tennis balls and touted the friendships and health benefits tennis created in their lives.
Each offered testimony citing three specific reasons why local government should finance the project. Replace the word “tennis” with “health care” and see if this sounds familiar:
“This is about access and opportunity,” Anchorage resident, and self-described “tennis parent,” Nancy Scheetz-Freymiller told the Assembly.
Stephanie Williams repeated the claim an hour later: “This is about providing tennis, public, indoor facilities for people who are not as fortunate as my family, and other families in the community.”
Serena Clendaniel even called the proposal a “public option,” and said it was necessary to break up the monopoly currently enjoyed by the Alaska Club, who requires club membership for access to their courts.
On all these accounts, the speakers are absolutely right. Tennis is a great sport and healthy activity for people of all ages. There are only six places with indoor tennis courts in Alaska, and the Alaska Club owns four of them (including all Anchorage facilities). Club membership rates leave out a wide swath of people; namely, anyone who can’t afford the monthly price tag of $120-168.
But the assembly has a different question to answer: Is it a proper role of the municipal government to force the Alaska Club to compete with the public sector in providing public access to indoor tennis courts?
The Sullivan administration would like that answer to be yes. And, once again noting the comparison to health care reform, he’s flown to the left of President Obama. Rather than force everyone in Anchorage to buy Alaska Club memberships (like the Affordable Health Care Act does), he’s juggling the “fiscal conservative” label while pushing for a full-fledged “public option.” He wants the public sector to compete directly with a private business.
I wonder if that will make it onto the campaign literature?
Anchorage residents should think carefully before deciding on the Turnagain tennis courts. Proponents raise valid points. All children need and deserve more access to athletic programs and after school activities. They serve as a strong deterrent from criminal activity and alcohol and drug use. The tennis program in Alaska is also growing, with league sign-ups boasting a 500 percent increase from last year to this year.
But is the tennis community, who was large enough to convince the legislature to support their cause, also big enough to sustain the new, city-run courts? That percentage change in league sign-ups is also equal to the total number of league players: 500. Total. That’s 0.2% of the Anchorage population. Nearly three times that number ride the bus each day. Wouldn’t public transit improvements be a more logical recipient of the funding? Or libraries?
Although it may be a worthwhile investment that creates dividends in the future, it’s far from the most equitable right now.
One gentleman named Gary Cox told the assembly: ”
“I think we’ve done a real good job of making Anchorage a nice city, but I don’t think we’ve kept up in the tennis department.”
That may be. But there’s a long list of other figurative departments should probably come to mind before we reach tennis. Is this where we want to use funding – meant for repairs and upgrades – now?
The Alaska Club president, Robert Brewster, said that the demand does not justify the cost to taxpayers. His courts run at 24.1 percent capacity during winter months. If this is overwhelmingly due to the pay wall, one would imagine that the market would deliver some competition. It hasn’t.
Assemblyman Chris Birch appealed to the Alaska Club president: “Is it really a zero sum game? I mean, I think [tennis] is growing…. Wouldn’t a public facility actually enhance, perhaps, even your marketability and put additional people, additional kids, additional interest in your resources?”
Brewster flatly replied: “What other clubs have seen across the country is that people would prefer to have their tennis subsidized by the city.”

1 COMMENT

  1. It would be great to provide indoor tennis to people who can’t afford it. And indoor waterparks, and golf, and racquet ball, and indoor soccer, and chess. And maybe we can provide affordable public transportation to these venues so the people who can’t afford to payfor these sports can get there. And while we are at it, playing tennis can make you hungry. Can we make sure everyone in Anchorage gets at least two wholesome meals a day?

  2. Not long ago, the mayor was willing to refuse a 6.9 million gift that came with an endowment for maintenance. http://www.adn.com/2010/09/23/1468884/city-agrees-to-turn-estuary-into.html.
    “Since July the conservation group has sweetened the deal for the city by agreeing to set up three endowments totaling $1 million to take care of the land, Shephard said. Before, it had just planned one smaller endowment.
    That answers the mayor’s concern that the city would be taking on more land to manage and maintain in a time of financial shortfalls.”
    Fortunately, the Assembly supported the proposal to accept the land.
    I wonder if the tennis community would be equally willing to raise the money for the construction of courts and to establish an endowment for maintenance. That might satisfy the mayor’s concern in a time of financial shortfalls.

  3. Strikingly similar arguments have been used to support improvements at Russian Jack Springs Park, where despite a wholly inadequate user base, continues to be seen by the Administration as worthy of millions of dollar of improvements, while the trails in the park remain closed because Park staff state they are short-handed and under-funded. One thing that the MOA DOES NOT do is pay for maintenance of its assets out of its operating budget, and it we must address our inability to maintain our assets before looking to increase the assets we are not maintaining.