Moments before the Palm Coast City Council was hijacked by disruption and agression from the audience Tuesday evening, the council had voted 3-2 to approve a $5.75 million plan to rename and expand the Palm Coast Tennis Center into a regional racquet center.
Tension built as members of the public spoke about the proposal. Most of the two-dozen odd speakers were opposed, if by a slim margin, citing costs, lack of public input and the city’s reliance on speculative projections both of future population growth and what would have to be a sharp increase in tennis and pickleball use to justify the center’s expansion. Proponents spoke of the city’s coming growth, the project’s health benefits to an aging population on one hand and an expected increase in college-age students on the other, and the value of a regional facility that could attract tournaments, exhibition events, visitors and marquee players: the facility is to be renamed, with Reilly Opelka’s name on the marquee.
Its success hinges on a big bet: Can the city replicate its success with the Indian Trails Sports Complex, where fields teem with youth soccer, lacrosse, baseball and softball, but with racket sports mostly focused on older players?
Opelka is one of the United State’s very few top-50 tennis players left in the world–the dearth of American players in the top 50 itself an indication of how far the sport’s popularity has fallen in the country. He grew up in Palm Coast. His parents still live here, and his father, George Opelka, was among the proponents of the project that bears his son’s name (Reilly Opelka Racquet Center).
“It’s about our kids, and that’s what this center means to us,” George Opelka said, “is facilitating dreams. Financially, you guys can figure this thing out. I know it’s a Rubik’s Cube, it’s not as easy as everybody says it is. But there’s more to it than just throwing money at a piece of concrete.” (Reilly Opelka himself spoke in a video from Madrid, projecting “larger scale events, exhibitions that that I’d love to be a part of.”)
Some of the opponents who spoke did so rationally and reasonably. Others spoke rudely and menacingly. Some dubious claims were presented as facts and with clearly tendentious motives among some of the speakers. Alan Lowe, the candidate who lost a bid for mayor last year and who is running for a council seat next year, was among them, as were some of his supporters. But some of the concerns were not necessarily off-base. And those concerns were not publicly vetted by the council before it took its vote, except at one previous workshop: the council listened to the evening’s public input, turned down an attempt to table the issue to a future meeting, and voted.
In some ways, the method was no different than when the council voted to approve building City Hall against intense opposition in 2013, rebuilding Holland Park in 2014 or building a new Community Center in 2017, all of which cost well above the tennis center expansion, most of which used general fund dollars (as the racket center will not), and some of which saw costs soar beyond original estimates. In every case, the public soon embraced the new projects, pride and usage relegating fury and opposition to distant memories.
The council majority Tuesday evening took much the same approach. “After listening to everybody, I’m favoring it building it, but it’s not easy for me to say something like that,” Council member Eddie Branquinho said, “because not everybody on the one side is completely wrong, and not everybody on the other side is completely right. But we have to make that decision, and either wait a few more years and pay a lot more or do it now and pay a lot less.”
Council member Nick Klufas said the tennis center could see the same turn-around that the city’s golf club has seen. “We make tough decisions, and these dollars have to be spent in a manner that’s not general fund dollars,” he said, referring to the funding mechanism for the expansion: almost half the money will come from park impact fees, which are obligated for park construction. More than a quarter of the cost will be paid through the Town Center redevelopment agency, and 8 percent would rely on a Tourist Development Council grant. Some 17 percent would be general fund dollars. Klufas sees the project as “making an investment in our future with the current key shape recovery of our nation” and positioning the city’s expanding population with improving amenities.
Nevertheless, the city’s bet on a lavishly expanded regional facility rests on assumptions that the players, the partnerships and the city’s population will be there to support it, even though the current facility operates at a deficit ($176,000 in 2019, $144,852 in 2020, when it was closed two months) and with a relative paucity of members: 273 members pay about $550 a year each, with an additional 36 people who have after-hour passes (at $25 a month), plus those who use courts on a 90-minute block basis (at $10 per bloc).
Bringing in pickleball, of course, could potentially double those numbers or more. The city plans to build 12 dedicated pickleball courts–six paid for with city dollars, six paid for by a matching grant from the county’s Tourist Development Council, whose revenue is generated from the 5 percent sales surtax on motels, hotels and other short-term rentals. Essentially, a tax paid overwhelmingly by visitors. Lauren Johnston, the city’s chief of staff and head of parks and recreation, who is leading the expansion plan, said the center would still charge members to play. A typical annual membership for pickleball would run in the realm of that charged by Pictona, the Holly Hill racket club, which charges $360 a year.
But Johnston said all options are on the table, including the possibility of making at least some access to courts at no charge. “That’s definitely an opportunity,” Johnston said. “Our concern is maintenance costs continue to go up year after year, so providing services obviously goes up, so we’re trying to find some equilibrium.”
The city is seeking buy-in to the plan. But its approach didn’t foster as much buy-in as a more inclusive strategy might have. The city’s planned expansion was devised through limited and insular public involvement. Only tennis center members and some pickleball players were part of the advisory committee that helped update the facility’s master plan. Ostensibly “public” meetings were held with tennis and pickleball players to help with input and design, but those meetings were never noticed, nor did the city’s public relations office disseminate information about them.
The population estimates and sports-involvement figures the city is using for what amounts to a considerable redirection both of financial resources and city recreation policy are either speculative or extrapolated from unusual activity in the pandemic year, when racket sports saw a jump in participation because of the inherent physical distancing they afford. Current population and usage figures, on the other hand, don’t appear to support an expansion as vast as the city is planning beyond the addition of pickleball courts, a low-impact sport with undeniably growing popularity, especially among older people–Palm Coast’s core constituency (28 percent of the population is 65 and over, just 18 percent are younger than 18).
The center, which opened in 2007 with 10 lighted clay courts, has never been open “for public play,” as a city memo summarizing the project notes. That term more accurately applies to the city’s courts at Holland Park, Belle Terre Park and Seminole Woods Neighborhood Park, where play is free and on a first-come, first serving basis. Those three parks have a combined seven hard-surface tennis courts. The six courts at Belle Terre and Holland Park are double-lined, meaning they also accommodate pickleball players.
The tennis center, on the other hand, has operated as a club, with memberships and daily fees underwriting access. In 2019, the last “normal,” or pre-pandemic year, the center drew attendance of 14,293. But that’s not just players. It includes anyone who visited the center, among them guests of players, people attending the city’s annual Futures tennis tournament, children attending summer camp, and so on. The number also reflects repeat users. Despite the aggregate, it adds up to an average of 39 people a day–far below what an amenity like Holland Park draws. In 2020, with tennis participation surging across the country because of its inherent physical distancing, the facility drew 17,000 people.
The center operates on a $350,000 budget this year (compared to $1.5 million for the city-owned Palm Harbor golf course), not including capital outlays. It generates about half the revenue needed to run the place. It employs the equivalent of four people on the city’s payroll, only one of them full-time. That’s in addition to the Parks and Recreation Department’s $1.8 million budget and the city’s $423,000 aquatic center, formerly known as Frieda Zamba pool.
On Tuesday, the administration cited future population increases as another justification for the expansion. “Palm Coast’s estimated population is expected to grow an additional 50,000 people over the next 15 years – nearing 150,000 by 2035,” the city’s memo to council members states. The population figure is presented without attribution, context or qualifiers, though the figure is highly questionable. It is based on the annual estimates of future population by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The bureau’s estimates are presented with a low, medium and high confidence level.
The bureau says the most likely figure is the medium-confidence estimate, though the bureau’s figures have been notoriously inaccurate year after year–the bureau tends to estimate higher numbers than are realized, even going by its low estimates–, and the more so the further distant the years in question. For example, in its 2006 estimates, the bureau was projecting a low estimate of 140,000 people for Flagler County by 2020, and a high estimate of 201,000. Neither figures were remotely close to the actual population of 115,000 in 2020.
The city’s projection of 50,000 more people by 2035 is actually the bureau’s medium estimate, but for the entire county, not just Palm Coast. (The high estimate is for 178,000 for the county.)
The city administration highlighted certain numbers more than others, among them a figure cited by the USTA, showing that tennis “saw an unprecedented 22 percent increase in overall participation compared to the previous year.” But it’s not as simple as that.
The figure is based on the data from the Physical Activity Council’s participation report. It’s based on internet surveys of 18,000 people across the nation, and focuses on people 6 and older and 123 sports, which means that the sample for tennis is rather small. The segment about tennis, obtained by FlaglerLive, does indeed show that tennis participation increased year-over-year by an estimated 3.96 million people. But Bicycling increased by 5 million, suggesting perhaps that the city might be just as well off expanding its free-access trails and bike-path system. The survey also shows that pickleball increased only by 0.7 million year-over-year, for a total of 4.2 million participants, compared to tennis’ 21.64 million. The numbers don;t reflect regular players, but those who have played the sport at least once in the past 12 months, including regular players.
Another startling revelation from the PAC report’s numbers: despite the 2020 surge in “core” tennis participation to 11.63 million–those who play 10 times or more in a year–that figure is barely higher than where it stood in 2009, after which it declined almost every year. In other words, 2020 is an outlier for now, and not the sort of year on whose figures public policy could reliably be based.
Looking even further into the numbers: the future of Palm Coast’s sports amenities depends on participation by its growing, older population. But while the 55-plus set saw growth in participation in 2020 (an increase of 760,000), the growth was mostly driven by younger age groups: Youth participation increased by 36.6 percent, while adult participation increased by 17.5 percent. It would have been better news for Palm Coast had the numbers been reversed.
Another major component of the racket club’s expansion is its partnerships with Opelka and private companies, among them AdventHealth Palm Coast, the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University, all of whose sports medicine, kinesiology, physical therapy and rehabilitation programs could find link with the facility. “The goal of this space is to create a vibrant and thriving sports medicine consultancy, with the appropriate space to house medical staff and facilities for rehabilitation and sports training workouts,” a city analysis of the plan states. “This creates leasable space and a stream of users” to the racket club. The facility would also have a restaurant, community space and a gym or rehab facility.
The analysis projects rather optimistic figures for one or more events that would draw 3,000 people, each person generating from $25 to $151 per day in economic impact, for a total annual impact of $5 million.
The more immediate council action, however, was Tuesday’s vote approving a design and construction contract with the Gilbane Company, which previously built City Hall and its Community Wing.
The plan unquestionably had its opponents. Lowe when he spoke said he wasn’t opposed to the pickle ball courts, but to the price tags, noting–accurately–that the cost estimate for the project is based on material costs that are quickly outdated, since they’re rising so quickly. Another speaker said the facility should be self-supporting. The plan had its ardent proponents, too, among them Agnes Lightfoot, who identified herself as a Realtor rather than as a tennis center leader who’s been among the city’s point persons there. “I know I’ve heard some people say oh I went by the courts and there was no one there, well maybe not at that moment, but sometimes it is so crowded,” she said. “Expand it now. Be ready, because they’re coming.”
Mayor Milissa Holland summed up the case for the proposal by citing the city’s legacy of amenities and the days before such things as the Indian Trails Sports Complex. “I can’t even imagine what the 900 kids that play in the spring and the fall league what they would be doing if those investments were not made,” Holland said, before speaking of the city’s 125 miles of heavily used trails, the golf course and parks. “I remember the days of the ‘absolutely do not spend $1 on Holland Park.’ That is a regional facility today that is utilized by all generations, and it is crowded every single, solitary day. So we are proud of our amenities.”
Appealing to the “totality” of the city’s history in that regard, she said the racket center continues that legacy “for those that want to play pickleball, and want to participate in tournament play, for those that want to continue to grow the game of tennis, for the next generation of tennis players and pickleball players and partnering with our school district to offer the next generation a place for team play organized sports. That’s our investment in public safety as well. That’s what keeps our community safe. It’s another way that keeps it growing in a responsible manner. And it’s another way to keep our quality of life as a priority in our community. It’s what keeps our property values continuing to climb, year after year after year. So these are strategic investments. We have thought long term. These are conversations we’ve had over the last several years. And this opportunity is here, and it’s now, and I’m proud to support this opportunity.”
After a motion by Council member Ed Danko died (“all I’m suggesting here with my motion to table what we’re doing, till we get a few more answers and we get some more comments from the public like a survey,” he said), the council voted 3-2 to move ahead with the racket center. Construction is expected around December.