New tennis center could help people raise a racquet in Dougherty County

Wes Sadler, right, gives instruction to a youngster at a tennis camp in Albany. He is among local tennis enthusiasts advocating for a tournament-ready tennis center in the county.

ALBANY — After an initial proposal to expand tennis opportunities in Dougherty County fell through, county leaders are looking for alternatives in making a $1.7 million investment in new facilities.

Albany State University declined to participate in an enhancement and addition to its facilities at its West Campus, county officials said, so the commission is headed back to the drawing board on finding another site.

While Tift Park on North Jefferson Street has been identified as a potential site for growing tennis in the area, the county’s Recreation Committee will examine other options before making a decision.

The first step is bringing a consultant on board to evaluate properties, said Dougherty County Commissioner Clinton Johnson, who chairs the committee, which met Monday to start the process of moving forward. The Albany Tennis Association will work to enlist the assistance from the U.S. Tennis Association.

“The more important thing, we came to a consensus on how to bring in a consultant to help us build the right kind of program,” Johnson said. “We will look at, of course, the community, the tennis community here, how to build a program that will be expandable.”

Tift Park has points in its favor, being a relatively central location in the city, Johnson said. It also is the site of pickleball courts, which the county envisions being part of the program.

Pickleball, which combines elements of table tennis, badminton and tennis, is something for young people, and the idea is to build facilities that will cater to that group as well as adults and seniors.

The Tift Park location also is convenient to medical personnel who work at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and other health care facilities and close to the Jefferson Street Boys & Girls Clubs unit, Johnson said.

The consultant will look at that site as well as examine other places as part of the evaluation.

“Trying to find the right location, that’s part one of it,” Johnson said. “I think the decision by Albany State just gives us a better opportunity. I think it’s a really good opportunity to find the right location, the location that’s perfect for tennis.”

The county will involve the city of Albany in the process, he said. The $1.7 million dedicated to developing a tennis facility was approved by voters several years ago in a special-purpose local-option sales tax referendum.

The city operates recreation programs, and part of its role as envisioned by the county is for it to manage tennis operations.

“If we build it on city property, that’s part of the partnership,” Johnson said. “If they manage it, that’s part of the partnership. If there’s an opportunity to build a really (great) facility and they work with us to manage and program it, that’s the opportunity.

“I think this would make tennis and, of course, pickleball, accessible to everybody. We hope to start 2021 with a good direction on where we will be going.”

In addition to identifying a site for the new tennis center, the USTA can help with developing a concept plan for a facility, said Wes Sadler, an Albany Tennis Association board member.

The local group has worked with Boys & Girls Club participants with tennis camps during which it handed out free racquets. The association’s goal is to expand the number of players in the county in the next decade.

The local association also is participating in the USTA’s Net Generation program, which looks to reach potential players ages 5 to 18, by reaching out to schools in the area.

“We’re really trying to implement that in the community,” Sadler said. “This new center will really help us do that. Tennis has actually spiked during COVID-19 because it’s a socially distanced sport. It has grown in popularity, which is enormous. It’s a fairly easy sport to learn.”

Mild winters also make it a year-around activity in the area.

“It’s providing some recreational activities for families and friends and helps people stay active,” Sadler said. “We’re trying to build a coalition of the city and county and the school system.”

County Commissioner Anthony Jones, who also sits on the Recreation Committee, said that building a new center will boost participation in the sport.

“If you build something nice, people are going to come,” he said. “I want to put this tennis center at a place where it will be convenient for everyone. We’re going to put a lot of planning, a lot of thought, into that.”

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