Cities rethinking costly, crumbling tennis courts

The courts are expensive to rebuild and maintain. In many metro parks, the space is being put to other uses.

New tennis courts in Richfield? People would rather have walking and biking trails.

In Bloomington, disintegrating tennis courts may revert to grass. And in Minneapolis, at least 39 of the 139 outdoor tennis courts run by the Park and Recreation Board are slated to disappear.

Ironically, tennis' popularity is on the upswing. National figures show that since 2000, participation in tennis has grown more than that of any other major sport. But dollars for replacing cracked and crumbling public tennis courts are not keeping pace.

Many of today's asphalt courts that are cracked and pitted and need replacement were built during tennis' heyday in the 1970s, when American tennis stars like Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert boosted the sport's popularity.

Minneapolis is "significantly overbuilt in tennis courts," said Michael Schmidt, general manager for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

In the 1970s, he said, "Virtually everybody who could scrape together enough money to buy a racquet thought they would play the game the rest of their lives.

"Park and recreation groups all over the country took advantage by building as many tennis courts as they could. No thought was given to what will happen 25 years later when they reach the end of their functional life and need to be redone."

Matter of money, priorities

Not every city is reevaluating its commitment to tennis courts.

In Edina, where high school tennis teams perennially compete for state titles, residents rank tennis courts in the top third of recreation needs, above swimming pools, ice rinks, off-leash dog parks and the senior center.

In Plymouth, participation in tennis leagues and lessons increased by one-quarter between 2006 and 2007. The city is keeping all 24 of its courts and redoing them one by one.

But in cities where there are lots of old tennis courts and where park and recreation budgets are pinched, replacing asphalt tennis courts at a cost of anywhere from $45,000 to $150,000 a pair is being carefully evaluated.

Bloomington is deciding what to do with its roughly 50 outdoor tennis courts on a case-by-case basis. Almost all of them were built 25 to 30 years ago. While some only need resurfacing, others need to be replaced, said Randy Quale, parks and recreation manager.

It's a matter of money and priorities, Quale said. Replacing tennis courts is expensive, he said, and there are new demands for different park facilities, such as disc golf courses, skate parks and fields for lacrosse.

"Tennis is not dying," Quale said. "In recent years, we're starting to see an uptick in tennis participation. But I don't anticipate it will get anywhere near the popularity of the 1970s."

In the city's Southglen Playground, one of two tennis courts has been replaced by a basketball court. Courts in other parks may be taken out and replaced with grass.

When Richfield asked residents which park and recreation facilities the city needed more of, walking and biking trails were the big favorites. Just one in six residents called adding tennis courts "very important." Softball fields, ice rinks, basketball courts and soccer fields also ranked above tennis, which finished last among the citizen priorities.

City Recreation Services Director Jim Topitzhofer said Richfield evaluates its 28 courts yearly and is considering retrofitting a tennis court that's not heavily used into a free skateboard park with low ramps.

But the city also has restored some tennis courts. Topitzhofer said he knows of at least three Richfield parks where the tennis courts are busy every night as long as the weather is warm. While the city survey is one measure of priorities, he said, his department also wants to promote tennis and get more kids playing, especially minority youth.

"One reason why there is changing participation in tennis may be that our demographic makeup is much different than it was in the 1960s and '70s," he said.

Minneapolis' Schmidt echoes that sentiment. New immigrants are pressing the park system for better facilities in sports that have rarely been played before in Minnesota, like cricket. And many city residents come from cultures with no background in tennis.

That doesn't mean the Park Board won't continue to invest in tennis courts, Schmidt said. But tight budgets mean it has to be careful where the money goes, and he said some tennis courts could be returned to grass for soccer or lacrosse fields.

The emphasis will be on quality, not quantity, Schmidt said.

"While it's disappointing if you can't get on a court because it's busy, it's more disappointing if a court is not maintained and not usable," he said. "Maybe you'll have to go nine blocks instead of four, but when you get there, you'll know it's playable."

Minneapolis has saved and replaced some public courts with the aid of Ellen Doll, a lifelong tennis enthusiast who saved city courts in her Kenwood neighborhood with a grassroots fundraising campaign. Doll then founded the all-volunteer "Support the Courts" group to raise money to redo tennis courts in needy city neighborhoods. The group is raising $500,000 to replace 14 courts at Webber, Powderhorn and Pershing parks in Minneapolis. Those courts are used both by children's programs and high school tennis teams.

"Our city was built on the prospect that there was green space within six blocks of each house," Doll said. "I love the idea that kids can have a safe place to play. ... They can develop a lifestyle and activities and attitudes that last all their life."

The U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) also is pushing to get more kids involved in park-based tennis programs. Though the USTA has been promoting news that more than 25 million Americans play tennis and the number is growing all the time, tennis players tend to be older and richer than most public park users.

To develop a tennis-playing population that is younger and more diverse, the USTA is beginning a new group-instruction program that will run much like soccer leagues, letting little kids learn the game using miniature courts, nets and racquets and foam balls that will make the game easier to learn.

"We hope this will be the answer to growing the game," said Marcia Bach, USTA's national park and recreation coordinator based in Bloomington. "It's not easy when you're 4 feet tall at the baseline and trying to hit a net that's over your eyeballs."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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