Tennis Partners

The Greater Knoxville Tennis Association and the city serve up a grassroots solution for the aging West Hills courts

An unusual public/private partnership between the City of Knoxville Parks and Recreation Department and the Greater Knoxville Tennis Association (GKTA) could ultimately result in 11 better courts, five new courts, a clubhouse, and some rest rooms at the West Hills Tennis Center.

Rather than wait for the city and/or county to budget the money for much-needed improvements, the GKTA took it upon themselves to initiate an energetic fund drive. And this spring, grant money and city matching funds came through for Phase One, which means drainage improvements, repaving the eight upper-level courts closest to the West Side YMCA, new lights, and fencing.

"We met with the engineers in late April and we'll start the paving this summer and start looking for an architect to design the clubhouse then, too," says Parks and Recreation Director Joe Walsh, who will supervise the project for the city.

Not a moment too soon, says GKTA project lead Cheryl Thompson, who, with Nancy Vineyard, has been in on what they've dubbed the West Hills Tennis Center Rescue from the first vague conversations in 2004. "Even if these courts were in great shape, there are just not enough of them in Knoxville—you can't find them," she says. "The GKTA is doing a great job of promoting tennis, so we now have a fifth-grade feeder program and like 1,000 kids playing junior team tennis. And that doesn't even count the high school programs, many of which practice at West Hills."

The $250,000 the GKTA has pledged to raise won't come into play until Phase Two, which includes a clubhouse and rest rooms, but the whole idea was theirs from the start.

"At first, we held some roundtable discussions and were looking for funding from city and county Parks and Recreation, the Knox County athletic director, and the City Council representative in affected areas," says Thompson. "We knew individual entities would not have enough funding on their own, but we figured, ‘Why not make a group effort?'"

As it's worked out, though, Parks and Recreation and the GKTA are the only mixed-doubles partners. "After our initial conversations, the city applied for a State Parks and Recreation grant and when it came through they matched the whole $100,000 and put in another $50,000," says Thompson. That money is enough to pay for Phase One, which will proceed this summer. Walsh says they'll select an architect around the same time, in preparation for designing the clubhouse.

When Phase One is complete, the project's continuation will depend on GKTA fundraising. "They have a lot of pledges, and as it gets closer to reality, those people will have to sit down and write out some checks for us to keep moving forward," says Walsh.

Thompson is confident her group can raise enough money for Phase Two, which would include a clubhouse and rest rooms, and the Phase Three revamp of three courts on the lower level, along with the construction of five more.

"To date, we already have $142,000 in the bank, and up to now we've just been fundraising among our membership," she says. "We assessed the membership directly by increasing their dues $5 for 2006 and 2007, and have done direct mail and a tournament."

The tournament had a "Smackdown" theme that Thompson's pretty sure she originated, with novel rules like subbing in a new player if you weren't satisfied with a doubles partner or permitting coaching. "You could also pay $5 and buy a do-over during the match," says Thompson. "I think we made most of our money on do-overs."

While Walsh says this isn't the first private group to come forward with funds for a city parks and recreation project, it's the first involving tennis. "It's great, we really appreciate it," he says. "These folks are putting their money where their mouths are."

And the GKTA is getting ready to go into high gear, seeking large donors from among the greater community, says Thompson—the later phases of the project are just too important to them to let the opportunity go by. "Junior tennis tournaments nationwide are just exploding," says Thompson. "If we are able to get this facility built the way we want, we can negotiate for Knoxville to host several very large tournaments this year and in 2009."

Along with the economic benefit for the city, junior players could travel four to five fewer weekends on the circuit. "That would be such a benefit to them and their parents," says Thompson.

To Walsh, the GKTA attitude is a "breath of fresh air. Most people are like, ‘Y'all need to fix this' or ‘I'm tired of the city doing this.'

"It's nice to work together for a change."