Trustees Serve new idea: could tennis bubble transition to turf

The Garden City Recreation tennis bubble at Community Park

When budget forecasts and long-term capital plans for Garden City resume, the Village Board of Trustees may have to continue a financial outlook that would ‘rally’ between different sport uses of village-owned facilities. Of particular interest with budget discussions for the coming fiscal year was the Community Indoor Tennis Center which features four Har-Tru tennis courts in an enclosed setting (tennis bubble) behind the swimming pool complex at Community Park.

During the Recreation & Parks 2020-’21 Budget session held on Thursday night, March 12 at Village Hall, trustees listened to performance revenues and incurred expenses of both the Village pool and tennis enterprise funds.

Paul Blake, superintendent of Recreation & Parks and chair of the Rec. Commission, told trustees the planned expenses for FY 2020-’21 involve minor decreases to the salary-related tennis fund line, which would go down 3% from the 2019-2020 adopted budget (from $225,000 to $219,000). Blake said new employees are due to earn less than older, more-experienced departmental employees with cost savings as a result.

Overall the Tennis Enterprise fund is projected to see a 2% rise in expenses and a 4% uptick from last year’s forecast budget for expenses of $473,000, going up to $492,000.

A $550,000 capital project for the Tennis bubble was on schedule for FY 2020-’21 — replacement of the outer vinyl covering, the bubble’s building shell, “in order to sustain operations.” The existing bubble covering is 19 years old and its material is rated for 20 years, as Blake told the Board it’s beginning to show signs of wear. He later noted that this larger scale project could potentially be pushed back to FY 2021-’22 given the lifespan of the covering. But the bubble itself was the only capital investment presented for the village tennis facility for the next five years — along with a meager $5,000 for replacement of equipment including the tennis courts’ rolling machine, a specialized utility cart and replacement of dividing curtains for 2020-’21.

On the revenues side, the Tennis enterprise fund was forecast to bring in $488,000 in revenues for FY 2019-2020 (ending May 31) but last year the adopted budget for revenues was $498,000, so a net loss of $10,000 was expected before the village facility shutdowns due to COVID-19 announced in mid-March. For 2020-’21 the revenue budget was proposed at $490,000, representing a 2% drop from the adopted budget last year. 

“We are projecting a bit of a downturn with the revenues side, and it’s something we need to address with Tennis. In general tennis as a sport/activity is down throughout the country and they are not attracting young players like they used to — a bit of cache seems lost for it. We (the village) have lost some revenue this year due to tennis leagues not renewing the memberships with Garden City Recreation, and we followed it by asking around to see where these folks have migrated. It turns out that some of the country clubs in the area — in the past year and for the first time — have come out with very reasonable racquet sports memberships. That gives people access not just to tennis or other courts but to all the nice amenities at country clubs,” Paul Blake said.

To address the lower revenues, Blake says the Village Recreation (prior to full-scale shutdowns in March due to COVID-19) was actively marketing new tennis programs including a ‘Learn ‘n’ Play’ program where people can purchase tennis time for a season and receive instruction from a tennis pro for their first 4 weeks utilizing the Garden City bubble.

“We are working with the United States Tennis Association locally to see what new programs they are developing and offering. But we experience what everyone else is experiencing; tennis is just down overall,” he said.

The nonprofit USTA has its main company offices in White Plains, however one of the world’s marquee tennis “Grand Slams” is held each August into early September in Flushing Meadows Park, at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Queens, approximately 16 miles northwest from Garden City. The USTA is the longtime sports owner and manager of the U.S. Open tournament.

In January 2020, Queens College in Flushing, a key institution with the City University of New York, began a new and groundbreaking academic collaboration with the USTA to offer an accredited professional tennis management certificate. In doing so Queens College became the first college in America to offer a credential tailored to the tennis industry that does not require students to be enrolled in a degree program.

The new program of study is accredited by the USTA and its aim is “to prepare students to teach or manage professional tennis programs, equipping them to work in such positions as instructors, coaches, administrators, and sports business owners.” In a December 2019 media release announcing the program, Skip Hartman, USTA-U director of Professional Tennis Management at Queens College and CUNY, commented: “there are so many opportunities in tennis from the professional event side to club work to parks and physical education, profit and nonprofit.”

Garden City Deputy Mayor Robert Bolebruch considered what he understood as some “relatively dead times for the tennis bubble” on Saturdays and Sundays.

“To me I would think that a high school tennis team could manage to practice on the courts for the appropriate prices — this way we can achieve its utility during ‘dead times’ whether or not we’d use half the facility or whatever. If that is a possibility, then we need to push to market this facility and to do things outside of the box. Instead of going after the same tennis players — individuals, groups or leagues — we need to find a different way. I agree that if they are over and playing at country clubs, they are not coming back to our facility. I guarantee there are places in the world, not far away, and people are playing tennis somewhere — or people would like to play but they may not consider the Garden City facility accessible. So let’s market ourselves differently, and proactively, as much as possible,” Bolebruch commented.

Blake later explained that there’s a conversation on tennis facilities planned with the Garden City School District because of the slated project for the bubble, with work (tentatively) planned for late spring to summer. The GCUFSD courts at Garden City High School would be an opportunity the village Recreation pursues for summer usage “with some programs and open play for residents, so we don’t suddenly have a dropoff with no place to play tennis. That would only exacerbate the situation of declining sums in our number of users,” Blake said.

The idea will be ‘served up’ to district administration about the GCHS’ use for the tennis bubble going forward.

Village Trustee Louis Minuto compared the activity level he’s observed for the tennis bubble to what he’s heard about the similar tennis bubble facilities in eastern Queens, adjacent to a stretch of the old Long Island Motor Parkway and baseball fields in one section of New York City’s Alley Pond Park — which is about 7 miles away from Garden City’s Community Park.

“The Alley Pond facility has some turf surfaces inside it as even they are not out-the-door with tennis players like they used to be. Can there be something else added into the facility (bubble) and offer another activity, more than one? It may not be that we want to market our tennis capacity differently but it’s maybe good for a different use inside along with tennis if the facility can be jazzed up some more,” he suggested.

Trustee Minuto brought up the possibility of batting cages, as he considered what an indoor setting like the bubble could add for recreation and sports uses for village residents and local visitors. With Minuto’s ideas the Board began some brainstorming about the bubble:

“With true out of the box thinking, should we change the surface and make the facility for another sports/recreational use? I see we aren’t just repairing the bubble but we are buying equipment for a surface nobody really uses anymore. Is the real consideration the change for the surface so the facility can accommodate lots of things other than just tennis — it’s remaining in such specialized use, but what is a premium during winter months is anything that is covered. We should be aggressively trying to find the best uses for this,” he said.

According to Blake, the Har-Tru playing surface for tennis courts have been in the facility since 1974, and they are prohibitive to add the playing surface for other uses. He says while the entire Community Park site and notably the tennis facility sit atop of the former landfill, the Har-Tru surface remains in solid condition whereas another playing surface may not stabilize as well. Blake says concern over the venue’s flooring would make it hard to imagine compatible uses.

“It would have to be something where we could correct any imperfections with the playing surface that would occur due to the settling of the underlayer,” he said. 

“Har-Tru surface is not too forgiving for other activities — basically it’s a tennis-only surface. If you bring too much other activity in there and you would risk damaging the Har-Tru and making it not as playable for tennis. Har-Tru can’t be covered as it has to be watered and maintained in a certain environment. If you covered it with say an artificial turf carpet it would dry out, become chalklike and pieces could come apart. Har-Tru is not practical for any kind of covering,” Blake said. 

He added that in 1974 when the Har-Tru was decided on there was consideration of an asphalt surface there, but the ground underneath would not have been suitable.

“Next to the tennis courts we used to have basketball and volleyball courts but we had to go in and re-level them several times because they were just whacky. The tennis courts were constructed with Har-Tru because it is a forgiving surface when you need to re-level. It is not static like asphalt is; with Har-Tru we can shape down any areas that have heaped up or we can build underlayment for areas that have sunken. Har-Tru allows us to maintain a good and flat playing surface,” Blake said.

In addition the structure is of concern as the original tennis bubble in Garden City was constructed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“That bubble was an air-supported structure but the bubble had troubles almost immediately because the heavy concrete foundation that was poured to secure it began to settle into the landfill below almost immediately, causing gaps and problems inflating the structure. They built the new structure with pilings to support the foundation. You would have to excavate out I don’t know how much burned and unburned garbage below from underneath the Har-Tru surface before you would be able to refill it with soil there — this would become a massive undertaking to excavate all of that and there would certainly be New York State DEC concerns and disposal concerns. I am not sure it is practical to change this surface,” Blake advised. 

Trustee Minuto wanted to hear more about a reduction in the space allocated for tennis within the bubble and what other kinds of sports or services inside the facility would make some practical sense, as a way to draw in more people and more revenues from the bubble. He insisted that there’s an opportunity with that venue “that’s worth looking into further.”

“I have been over at Community Park a lot, and I grew up here and I have never seen anyone going over to play tennis there — not in years. Let’s take a look and see about getting some more use out of this thing. It is giant and it’s just sitting there — if the chance presented itself for the village to earn some more on this place, the first thing I would do is change the surface in order to open it up to more people who may want to use it,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Bolebruch said indoor batting cages are packed all of the time, and one tennis court could easily accommodate a setup for a supporting activity for a more popular sport among area youth.

“If in the event we are not fully utilizing four tennis courts, maybe we could then cut it down to three and use one for whatever,” he said. Blake commented that Recreation and Parks will look into this idea although more modifications and added equipment may need to occur.

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