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After back-and-forth, Anchorage Assembly finally passes tennis deal

Sean Doogan
Nearly 100 supporters packed the Anchorage Assembly chambers to advocate in support of mayor Sullivan's plan for new tennis courts on Nov. 5, 2013. Loren Holmes photo

After two months of public testimony, failed deals and debate over a $10.5 million capital grant Anchorage received from the Alaska Legislature earlier this year to build a sports facility that would include indoor tennis courts, the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night finally passed a compromise measure that will put the money to use.

The deal -- an amended version of a plan put forward by Assembly Member Bill Starr that had failed at the last Assembly meeting -- was resurrected by Assembly Member Amy Demboski. It assigns just over $4.4 million to the construction of the tennis courts, to be called the Northern Lights Recreation Center. It passed by a vote of 9-2, with only members Patrick Flynn and Demboski voting against it. Demboski voted against her own plan because it was amended to remove a requirement that would have asked Anchorage voters to approve or deny a bond measure that would fund the remaining cost of the project. Demboski has said she believes a bond, if put to voters, would fail. She supports using all of the tennis money for other projects.

But even the deal as passed only gets supporters of the sports facility started. It will cost millions more to actually build it.

The remainder of the money for the facility -- the project is expected to cost $7-$12 million -- will have to be raised, either through private donations, or by going back to Juneau to ask lawmakers for more money. Mayor Dan Sullivan has up to a week to issue a veto, but usually announces his intentions to do so at the meetings. On Tuesday night, he left the Assembly meeting immediately following the vote, making a veto unlikely.

The deal drew sighs of relief from both supporters and detractors of the project. “It’s good to have it over,” said Alaska Tennis Association President Allen Clendaniel. “We wanted the original amount of $7.2 million, but now we can go back and focus on why we did this in the first place.”

The tennis association went to Juneau last year to ask lawmakers to fund the tennis court facility. There has been an ongoing debate about just how much money was asked for when lawmakers voted on it in April, just days before the state capital budget was passed. House Finance Committee co-chair Bill Stoltze, R-Wasilla, said he was told the project backers asked for $4 million. Clendaniel said there is no doubt in his mind how much was initially sought: $7.2 million.

When the project showed up at the Anchorage Assembly meeting in early October, it was listed as a $10.5 million appropriation lumped in with $26.5 million in other funding to fix up aging city-owned buildings. Assembly members have been debating the breakdown ever since, and Tuesday night finally came up with the compromise to spend that $4.4 million on the tennis courts and put the rest of the original $10.5 million toward repairing Sullivan Arena and the Ben Boeke and Dempsey-Anderson ice arenas.

The part of Demboski’s proposal that would ask voters to put the remainder of the cost for the tennis facility on a bond was removed at the request of Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston. But it leaves supporters with the question of where exactly the remaining money to build the tennis courts will come from.

“We aren’t sure yet,” Clendaniel said. “But part of the strategy will likely include going back to the legislature.”

The Assembly approved asking for $10.5 million for the tennis facility from Juneau next year. That may put tennis supporters in the unenviable position of having to get their project approved by lawmakers -- a year after they already voted for it, and not long after it drew criticism and controversy in Alaska's largest city. Anchorage Assembly members, it would seem, are glad to have the months of debate over.

“Let’s get out of the sandpit,” Johnston said just before the tennis deal passed. “Let’s take a breather, lets appropriate these funds and let the Alaska Tennis Association figure out what they can do with the funds. They might come back next year and say we can’t do it, or come back with a benefactor that builds it for them.”

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com