Anaheim Tennis Center Project Moves Forward Despite Mayor’s Disapproval

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

Tennis players at the Anaheim Tennis Center, which is scheduled for a multi-million dollar renovation.

Controversy has once again erupted around Anaheim’s plans to spend millions of taxpayer dollars renovating a privately run tennis center.

The City Council Tuesday voted 3-2 to continue a plan to begin accepting bids for what budget documents show has become a nearly $8-million proposal to rehab the Anaheim Tennis Center and Wagner House, which is located in the middle of town, just north of the Platinum Triangle.

But accompanying the council majority’s approval were howls of disapproval from Mayor Tom Tait, who, along with Latino activists, has for years railed against the proposal as a poster child for the city’s penchant for steering resources to affluent neighborhoods and the resort area at the expense of mostly Latino and working-class neighborhoods.

The project first appeared in the city’s general fund budget in 2013 with a price tag of $6.4 million. But it was pulled after condemnations from Tait and the activists.  However, last year it reappeared in the 2015-16 fiscal year budget, with the cost ballooning to $7.9 million.

In an effort to derail it again, Tait last week asked for a council discussion before the city released a request for bids on a design-build contract for the project. And at Tuesday’s meeting, the mayor bluntly criticized the project as a “gift” to the private operator who runs the center as a for-profit business. Tait said the money would be much better spent acquiring desperately needed parkland.

“It wouldn’t make my top 100 list of where I’d spend $6.5 million on parks,” Tait said.

Tait’s comments reflect a discrepancy between the city budget and the figure told to the council by Community Services Director Terry Lowe. The city budget states the project will cost $7.9 million, but Lowe said Tuesday night it would be $6.5 million.

Tait’s criticism, however, did not keep council majority members Jordan Brandman, Lucille Kring and Kris Murray from voting for the project. The mayor’s ally on the council, James Vanderbilt, also voted no.

City officials have defended the project as necessary because of a contract with tennis center operator Mike Nelson that calls for the city to pay for infrastructure improvements. Specifically, the contract requires “complete rehabilitation/reconstruction of the clubhouse and auxiliary buildings, landscaping, sidewalks, cleaning of drains, and parking lot improvements, signage and other major systems, including plumbing and electrical.”

However, the contract, signed in 2007, doesn’t bind the city to a specific timeline for improvements. And city officials are taking the project beyond the contract requirements to include things like a historically themed outdoor garden and the “relocation and lowering of the facility’s main tennis court,” according to a city staff report.

City officials had also said the funds for the project come from park fees levied on developers at the Platinum Triangle, and that the money is restricted to an area in or near the mixed development of high-density residential and commercial buildings.

On Tuesday, Members of the council majority continued to defend the project as an overdue investment in an aging city-owned facility. And the renovations will also benefit low-income children who will be able to use the center at “little or no charge,” according to a city staff report.

“They do bring kids in and some of them don’t pay. It’s probably on a sliding scale. And they get free lunches at school, so they get a free tennis lesson,” Kring said.

Kring also said that, because the revenue comes from developer fees, the money wasn’t technically “taxpayer money.”

Community Services Director Terry Lowe also outlined givebacks operator Mike Nelson had made to the community, including sponsorships of high school local tennis teams.

Lowe described the tennis center and Wagner House renovation as the second step of a three-phase plan that also includes renovation of the adjacent Boysen Park playground and additional parkland.

But Tait contended that the city would not be getting a good return on its investment. The city received a base rent of $30,000 a year, plus a share of the center’s revenue, which Lowe said means the city gets between $80,000 and $100,000 annually.

Tait says for the investment to be worthwhile, the city should receive closer to $500,000, a figure Lowe acknowledged was unrealistic. However, Lowe said his “primary responsibility is to provide quality facilities for our residents, and that’s what I’m attempting to do.”

Without a sound business reason to make the investment, Tait said the next reason to spend the money would be the public benefit. But there isn’t public benefit because there isn’t free entry at the privately run tennis center, he said.

“When the taxpayers pay, and someone else gets a big return, 80-90 percent of the gross, whatever it is, to me that’s a gift,” Tait said. “[The operator] should be investing in it. It’s his business.”

Vanderbilt attempted a compromise by restricting the project to only the improvements required by the contract with the operator. However, the council majority rejected Vanderbilt’s proposal.

“I do think we are long over due to complete this project, and I would like to move forward,” Murray said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: @adamelmahrek