Tennis group seeking $3.5M for new downtown venue

Tennis advocates have identified three near-downtown parcels for a new Indianapolis Tennis Center and expect to make a sponsorship announcement soon that could kick-start the development.

Shublak Shublak

Save Downtown Tennis president Mark Shublak, an Ice Miller attorney, said the not-for-profit group is on course to open the facility—which will eventually include 16 courts—by early 2012.

Half the courts would be inside and half outside, with one of them able to accommodate seating for 5,000 spectators. Shublak and his group are intent on luring national, international and collegiate tennis events as well as high school, youth and other regional and local tournaments to the site.

The effort has the backing of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, Indianapolis Downtown Inc., the National Junior Tennis League and the U.S. Tennis Association’s Midwest District and national box

Save Downtown Tennis officials are discussing building the project on one of three city-owned parcels: 15.3 acres at Fall Creek Parkway and 16th Street, the Central State Hospital site on West Washington Street and an 11.1-acre plot at 26th Street near the Monon Trail. All three sites, Shublak pointed out, are within about three miles of Monument Circle.

“At this point, it’s preliminary, but we’re working with them to try to find a new home for the tennis center,” said Paula Freund, Mayor Greg Ballard’s press secretary. “The city feels it is viable if all the right things fall into place.”

One of the first hurdles to clear is raising the initial $3.5 million needed to build the indoor facility and parking lot.

“To any critics who say this is not possible, I’d say, ‘There’s been a lot of work going on behind the scenes, and there are a lot of conversations developing,” Shublak said. “When those are formalized, we’ll make our announcement.

“I’m surprised myself how much we’ve accomplished,” Shublak added. “I think we’re very, very close to striking some agreements with major sponsors who could challenge other corporate donors and family foundations to help us complete the capital campaign.”

Zoning issues also would have to be examined and neighborhood input would have to be gathered before the project goes forward, Freund said.

“We’re committed to working with them to help them find a new home for this, but gathering community input would be vital before this goes forward,” Freund said. “We need to make sure this is something the community wants.”

tennis mapThe Indianapolis Tennis Center, with six indoor courts and 16 outdoor courts—including a stadium court that seated 10,000—was built in 1979 and located on the east edge of the IUPUI campus.

For three decades it hosted a major professional tennis tournament—known for many years as the RCA Championships—which attracted some of the world’s best players. But following the 2009 tournament, the event folded amid financial difficulties and moved to Atlanta.

IUPUI unveiled a master plan in 2008 that called for the facility’s demolition, and, with the demise of the local tournament, the university in 2010 demolished the facility to make room for an expansion of the NCAA headquarters and parking facilities.

But the Indianapolis Tennis Center did more than host an annual pro tournament. More than 900 dues-paying ITC members—mostly amateurs and teaching pros—were left in the lurch, and a faction of those formed Save Downtown Tennis.

Ironically, many of the Save Downtown Tennis members who were initially angry over IUPUI’s decision, have made amends with the university and now are in discussions to host the school’s men’s and women’s tennis teams and physical education classes at the new tennis center.

“The past is the past,” Shublak said. “We have had a very productive dialogue with IUPUI.”

In addition, the facility could be key in extending a contract for Indianapolis to host one of a handful of USTA regional training facilities. USTA formerly housed its training center at the old ITC. When it was demolished, those programs were moved to facilities across central Indiana. After this year, USTA President Gordon Smith said the organization will re-evaluate its plans to have the training center here.

“Certainly a centrally located downtown facility would be desirable,” said Smith, who was in town recently for a USTA district board meeting. “From the USTA’s standpoint, an indoor/outdoor facility that can host year-round play is ideal. The [Indianapolis Tennis Center at IUPUI] was a major attraction here. And based on the discussions I’ve heard, it sounds like the city could have that kind of facility again soon.”

Indianapolis officials said if they do strike some kind of deal with Save Downtown Tennis, they’d likely maintain ownership of the land. Save Downtown Tennis, Shublak said, is prepared to pay for operations out of membership dues, corporate partnerships and fees from tournaments and other events held at the facility.

Shublak is hopeful the project will qualify for New Market Tax Credits available for the development of land in certain innercity census tracts.

Though it’s not a part of the immediate plan, Shublak wouldn’t rule out an effort to try to get back on the ATP tour schedule.

“The movement right now has been to shorten the ATP’s season,” USTA’s Smith said. “But no one has forgotten what a great [ATP] tournament this city hosted, and I really see a day when an ATP tour stop could be coming back.”

Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association officials think the facility would be a major attraction even without a major tournament.

“These types of sports venues certainly resonate with event planners,” said ICVA spokesman Chris Gahl. “People often overlook the lucrative tourism and visitor business behind youth sports and regional sporting events. Having this facility downtown certainly plays into the city’s selling point of being compact and walkable.”

Shublak said a downtown tennis facility would be a major draw due to the sport’s growing popularity.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association in its 2009 Sports & Fitness Participation Report found that since 2000, U.S. tennis participation has grown 43 percent, more than any other sport. USTA officials say their membership is growing more than 5 percent annually.

While tennis participation might be growing, the number of frequent players is still lagging where it was during the sport’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s one reason the USTA has launched so many youth initiatives, to try to turn young players into avid tennis fans and frequent players when they are adults, said local sports marketer David Morton, also a USTA Midwest Section committee chairman.

“Maybe the sport is not as popular mainstream because everyone has so many other commitments and passions these days,” Morton said. “But the loyalists are as loyal as ever, and tennis is definitely on the rise, no question about that.”•

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