Palm Coast government is proposing an ambitious, multimillion transformation of the city’s tennis center off Belle Terre Parkway into a “Regional Racquet Center” featuring 42 tennis and pickleball courts, a clubhouse, space for events and other amenities.
The plan is designed to address the recreational needs of Palm Coast’s continuously and rather rapidly growing but aging population while capitalizing on racket sports the way the busily trodden Indian Trails Sports Complex has capitalized on soccer, softball, lacrosse and baseball, drawing regional competitions and visitors to town along the way and requiring still further expansions.
Just three years ago then-City Manager Jim Landon had won approval from the council for a $100,000 study of the future of that tennis center and its potential as an aquatic center and multi-generational recreational center that was to include “health/wellness, education, arts, music, life skills, community events and more,” be followed by a survey and public meetings. That plan quietly vanished after council members expressed surprise at its scope.
The more recent plan was grounded in a $30,000 consulting contract with a different company in February, along with the work of an advisory committee that sat on several public input meetings and a survey. But that survey and those involved in the meetings were largely those who currently use the facility already and are intimately knowledgeable of it–see below–rather than residents at large, making it more of a control (if not controlled) group than a gauge of random resident input. “With a growing population and new racquet sports always developing, it’s critical for the Palm Coast Tennis Center to evolve into a modern facility that will serve the future needs of our projected population,” the committee concluded. The proposed amenities are largely the result of that combined input.
The proposal drew some two dozen regular tennis players to the workshop meeting, some of whom spoke and most of whom applauded, without objection from the council this time, when a council member lent warm support to the plan.
“I am young looking but I’ve actually been playing tennis for 65 years and played competitively all over,” Suzy Moya told the council, “and actually went to the regionals, so tennis is terribly important to me, and pickleball has become an important element in my life as well. Having been active in the community, I’ve learned very quickly that the economic growth potential for this county was not due so much in terms of big manufacturing, but it was the service and sports and tourism that was going to attract growth and contribute to our tax base. And the Palm Coast Tennis Center has been a wonderful facility for international play.”
The city is bullish on its own plan, but not without some opposition.
“We are still growing,” Mayor Milissa Holland said this morning. “Why are we growing? People choose Palm Coast for their home, because they like the amenities that have driven them here. A lot of residents have relocated here many years ago because of the golf courses and the tennis and the boating. We just now also have a multi-generational community. And that means that we’ve established programs for all ages. That means when we look at facilities and growing our facilities intentionally, we do that with a business plan in mind, and we’ve done that with our golf course.”
Phase one of the racquet center would cost $5.7 million. It would result in 12 dedicated pickleball courts, six of them covered, enabling continuing plan in bad weather–a major advantage over other courts in the county–a dozen clay tennis courts (up from 10 today), including a stadium court for major events, six hard-surface tennis courts, spectator space from higher levels, two junior tennis courts, a hitting wall for practice, restrooms, a lobby and reception area, a pro shop, locker room facilities, and the like.
Design would begin now. Construction would start in fall, the facility would open in 2023. The city has already put the project out to bid, receiving eight applicants and picking the Gilbane Building Company. The council has yet to approve the contracts.
City Manager Matt Morton said the facility’s construction would not require new tax revenue. Park impact fees–the one-time fees levied on new construction–would pay for half the project. Impact fees may not be used on anything but capital improvements or new parks. Revenue from the Town Center Community Redevelopment Agency, or enterprise zone–a unit of city government–would pay for another quarter of the project. CRA money is restricted to the CRA’s geographical area. A Tourist Development Council would provide remaining dollars.
Morton was more vague on actually running the facility once it’s built: staffing or contractors mean recurring costs. Those costs were not included as city officials presented the racquet center in today’s presentation in a city council workshop. And the presentation made only incidental mention of the fact that, unlike investments in Holland Park or other openly accessible facilities, the $5.7 million investment (to start) would be going into a facility that will remain, like the municipal golf course or the existing tennis center, a fee-for-service amenity, not a widely, freely accessible park.
The presentation drew praise from Holland and three council members, especially from Council member Eddie Branquinho, who sees the proposed facility as a future boon for property values in addition to its inherent benefits for recreation. But the plan also drew pointed opposition from Council member Ed Danko, who said the facility is commendable while its timing is not.
“We’re talking about a lot of money here, an awful lot of money, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, in case you haven’t noticed you’re all wearing masks,” Danko said (a remark that drew a wry rejoinder from Branquinho, who said he was glad “some people” were finally recognizing the seriousness of the pandemic. Branquinho and Danko have an on-and-off Hatfield-McCoy routine going at the council, though it’s been in abeyance lately.) “I’m not opposed to this project, but I’m opposed to it now. We can wait a year, can’t we? It’s not a must have, like police or fire or roads.”
Danko’s comments were also anticipated by those of Alan Lowe, the erstwhile candidate for mayor who–as Danko in 2019–against council rules turned his speaking segment today into a campaign commercial for his run for a council seat. He is opposed to the expansion plan.
“We did a very similar strategy in 2011 whenever the city was in an economic recession and the city invested into Indian Trails Sports Complex,” Lauren Johnston, the city’s parks and recreation director, said, “and the magnitude of tourism that comes in year after year on those sporting fields, it does, it keeps those service industry jobs. It keeps them happy, the hotels, the businesses. We’re still hosting those tournaments. We’ve got a major soccer tournament, a major lacrosse tournament here coming up soon. They’re still doing it safely, but they’re keeping our people [at] work. We made that investment in the sports complex then, and the same strategy that we’re trying to mirror here with the tennis center.”
The racquet center plan isn’t without pitfalls: pickleball is growing rapidly. Tennis, in contrast, has by every measure been on the decline for over a decade, and last year lost its perch on ESPN. Participation is static. The new center will not require new tax revenue to build but the financial plan for running it is not clear. Unlike a planned shopping center that’s lined up a number of future tenants, the only known tennis tournament the city has booked is its annual Futures Tournament, in a field that’s seen a precipitous drop in tennis tournaments well before Covid. Unlike soccer, lacrosse and softball or baseball, pickleball’s constituency is overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of the retired, whose games–or tournaments–don’t generate nearly the sort of caravan-like following of parents, relatives and siblings that youth tournaments do, but rather depend on an existing, local population. (As a spectator sport, pickleball is not exactly an absorbing experience.)
The city is unveiling its Regional Racquet Center plan just as the Flagler County School Board is rethinking the future of its struggling Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, where the tennis courts are underused and the membership-driven facility as a whole, which also draws extensively on older members, is facing a slight though largely covid-driven deficit this year. What the Swim and Racquet Club has long been aware of, however, is that the “Racquet” part of its webbing is its weakest link.
The city and county aren’t lacking in hard-surface courts, from Holland Park to Belle Terre and Wadsworth Park, not including courts at schools, all of them free to use. It’s not clear how or why additional hard-surface courts at the existing tennis center, where the walk-on fee is $12, would draw players. Older players prefer clay courts for being much kinder on knees and joints.
The city does not have a rigorous analysis of court-usage at the tennis center. When Danko asked how many people use the facility, Johnston cited 100 members, plus 25 weekend-membership participants, plus those who drop in to use the facility for $12. The facility served 17,000 people in total in the last fiscal year, including guests, children’s camps or clinics and the like. The city does not have an actual count of pickleball players in the city. Johnston estimated “ upwards to 2,000 to 3,000 people in Palm Coast.” she said.
Danko said the city will likely be facing a contraction in revenue (he cited an example projecting revenue shortfalls for cities at large in the next three years) and said the city will be needing to spend more on such things as fire and police. But based on the revenue sources Morton cited, that money cannot be used for general services such as police and fire or other functions of the city. It is earmarked for capital improvements or new construction. The only question is whether the city wants to build, say, a new park, some neighborhood parks, or expand an existing facility–such as the tennis center.
“We’re not going into debt, we’re not taking out loans to pay for the expansion of this facility,”: Holland said. “The reason why we adopted this as a strategic priority was because it was a facility that was not utilized to its highest capacity. And its highest capacity warrants an expansion that will allow a business plan to be adopted in a way that takes advantage of the market, takes advantage of our history of tennis, takes advantage of the fact that we do have Reilly Opelka who grew up here learning the game, takes the fact that we’ve had a lot of pros come here and play. That brings international recognition to our community. Those are investments that we make so businesses will thrive, so tourists will come and spend dollars. We generate sales tax dollars and reinvest in these amenities, and that’s what we have done. I’m so proud of us as a city government that we are fiscally sound, that we are continuing to see growth, we are continuing to see permits pulled at a higher rate than other communities. Why? Because we offer a tremendous quality of life for all ages in our community.”
The business or marketing plans have not been drafted, however, and much of today’s discussion was wanting in of the sort of evidence that buttress such plans.
Soon after the council discussed the matter, the tennis center’s platoon migrated to the tennis center for its usual Tuesday league play. Only four of the 10 courts were in use as the members were arriving (it was between 10:30 and 11 a.m.), though Agnes Lightfoot, a long-time leader and advocate of the tennis community–and a team captain in one of the local leagues–said the center is routinely much busier earlier in the morning.
“I run two social groups. If I’m not out there on my computer at 8 o’clock in the morning booking courts, I’m too late,” said Steve Major, also a team captain at the center and with the Greater Volusia-Flagler Tennis League and the Flagler Tennis League. He and Lightfoot discounted a council member’s suggestion that the count of users is inflated if the very same users are counted over and over. There are obvious repeated counts, Major said, but “there’s nobody here that plays every day anymore, because we have an aging community. That’s why we want to see this stuff before we’re done.”
Lightfoot said the city’s plan is positioning the center to ensure that when the University of Jacksonville and the University of North Florida are operating in Town Center, their students won’t go elsewhere for recreation. “They’re going to be coming into the community to do their trailing, to do the boating, to do the tennis,” Lightfoot said. “It’s going to grow. We know it’s going to grow.”