The aging tennis courts at Tift Park are infrequently used nowadays, but that location was at one time being considered for a special tax-funded community tennis center. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Almost two decades after Dougherty County voters approved special tax funding for a community tennis center, county and city of Albany officials are close to approving a project that would make that long-delayed recreational facility a reality.
With the city taking a close look at two potential sites for a mega sports park that would include soccer, baseball, softball and tennis facilities, county officials will likely use all or part of the $3,384,073 available in special-purpose local-option sales tax recreation funds to build a revamped version of the long-delayed tennis center initially OK’d in 1994’s SPLOST III vote.
“This won’t be a tennis center per se, not the way it was initially imagined,” Dougherty County Administrator Richard Crowdis said. “But the county would use the SPLOST dollars approved by voters to fund the tennis component of the sports park the city plans to build.”
City Manager James Taylor confirmed that the city is “getting close” to selecting a site for a sports park large enough to accommodate facilities for multiple sports, including tennis.
“Where we are right now, if the city builds the sports park, the county plans to use their (SPLOST) funds to build a tennnis center on the site,” Taylor said. “We’ve narrowed our discussion down to two key sites, and I expect we’ll present one to the City Commission for consideration in March or April.”
Taylor declined to discuss the locations being considered.
If county-financed tennis courts do indeed become part of a new city-run recreation complex, their construction will signal the end of a drawn-out battle to open access to the sport to the entire community. It’s a battle that raged hotly for more than a decade, finally petered out all together, and was revived when the city started talking about building a multisport park.
When county voters approved the SPLOST III referendum in November 1994, one of the items on the list was $1 million for a tennis center. The center, however, became something of a political football that was passed back and forth among city and county officials. It was delayed initially while the city worked on a recreation master plan, and became such a politically hot topic that city officials decided to pass it back to the county, where it had originated.
“The city essentially said they didn’t want it,” Crowdis said.
In 2000, a group of citizens interested in developing a tennis center for the community had an Atlanta-based consulting firm come up with a master plan for a 16-court complex. Representatives of that firm, TennisConsulting.com, looked at 15 sites before determining that Tift Park, which comprises a two-square-block area from Jefferson Street to North Monroe and from Fifth Avenue to Seventh, was the best location for the center.
The plan called for a complex that, with a 3,500-square-foot service center, would cost around $2.4 million to build and between $100,000 and $150,000 a year to operate.
Local tennis buff Charlie Hancock was chairman of the citizens committee that worked with the group to develop the master plan.
“We met with city officials about 20 times, and (then-city manager) Janice Allen Jackson finally told us that the city was not going to do anything with the center, that we should take our plan to the county,” Hancock said. “So, essentially, we were told to start over. We spent a lot of time on a project that, frankly, I don’t think the city ever intended to build.
“With the county, they were planning to build the complex, but they wanted (the citizens group) to fund operations. It was much more than we thought was reasonable, so we just kind of told them we didn’t think their plan would work.”
When the initial group of supporters bowed out of the process, another group took up the challenge of working with county officials to try and formulate a workable plan. One member of that group, Jerome Hubbard, said the county’s proposal came with too steep a cost.
“It was all about finances,” Hubbard said. “They wanted us to come up with a half-million dollars in private money to operate the center, and we really tried to find the funding. We went to Phoebe (Putney Memorial Hospital), Procter & Gamble and to private citizens looking for contributions, but it was not the best time in the world from a financial standpoint. P&G was laying people off, Bobs Candies had closed and the economy in our region was on its way down.
“The county planned to provide the infrastructure and build the complex, but they wanted to lease the center for private operation. It never worked out, so we sent them a letter saying we didn’t see a way to make it work.”
Crowdis said he received a letter from the group on Sept. 11, 2007.
“The whole project’s been pretty much in limbo since then,” the county administrator said.
Since the SPLOST III referendum OK’d funding specifically for construction of a tennis complex, the county was not allowed to use the special tax money for any other project. And when initial costs for the project came in well above the $1 million approved in the referendum, county officials allocated more general recreation funding from the 2005 SPLOST V referendum to complete the center.
County Finance Director Martha Hendley said the current “separate line item” on county books for the tennis facility shows $3,384,073 available, $684,073 from SPLOST III and $2,700,000 from SPLOST V.
Now, rather than planning for a tennis center that would include private management, the county is hoping to fund the construction of a tennis facility at the city’s new sports complex.
“The city allocated funds in SPLOST VI for a sports park, so we’ve talked with them about using our SPLOST funds to build the tennis component there,” Crowdis said. “Once they get a location large enough for all the facilities they’re planning, we hope to use our SPLOST funds to build courts that will be available for use by the entire community.”
Hubbard, for one, says he’s glad to see the 20-year-old plan being discussed again.
“Anything the city and county do for recreation is great,” the insurance agent said. “I learned to play tennis on the public courts at Tift Park, and I think this is a great opportunity to introduce non-country club kids to the sport. I also think recreational opportunities are important in attracting businesses and families to our community. That’s one of the first things people and industries considering relocation look at.”