A planned recreation center in subsouth Bibb County has split some in the community into two factions, and the dividing line has turned out to be a tennis net.
One group, largely people associated with local tennis organizations, wants the $8.2 million facility to focus largely on tennis. They’re calling for the building of at least 24 courts they say could help Macon-Bibb County retain several regional tennis tournaments and attract even more.
They contend a tennis-centric facility would keep Macon competitive as other Georgia cities such as Rome and Columbus expand their own tennis centers.
But for many who live in the Sardis Church Road area, where the new facility will be located, their interest isn’t so much in tennis but in a well-equipped rec center for their children that includes basketball courts, athletic fields and a pool.
Tensions between the two sides have largely simmered under the surface, but at a recent public meeting, emotions began to boil over.
“People keep trying to sell (a tennis facility), and the people on the south side are tired of hearing about it,” Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Scotty Shepherd said. “Some of the people are very angry, very adamant that they don’t want it.”
Clay Murphey, who oversees special purpose local option sales tax projects for Macon-Bibb County, said he will present the commission’s Economic and Community Development Committee on June 23 with a site plan that will include every amenity people have said they want at the center.
Since there’s not enough money to pay for the entire wish list, Murphey will present commissioners with options, with the cost of all the choices listed so commissioners can best decide how to spend the money.
“Looking at our master plan, the site is big enough to handle all of it,” said Murphey, who noted that everything on the master plan would cost $14 million.
“When I show them the master plan, it will show a (minimum) 22-court (tennis) facility, four ball fields, an indoor pool. It all fits. I’ll give them the buffet menu, and they can pick and choose.”
THE SUBSOUTH PERSPECTIVE
Shelby Neal, a longtime resident of the southern part of the county, said the area hasn’t enjoyed the same recreation opportunities as other parts of the county.
Neal said she isn’t opposed to the idea of the new facility having some tennis courts, but she wants a center that can accommodate the widest cross-section of people who live nearby.
“I have no problem with tennis courts, (but) I do have a problem with 25 tennis courts,” she said. “I do think it’d be good to have a couple of courts. I hope we can negotiate so that all of us get a little bit of what we want. But (tennis) would take so much money from other stuff. I’m a grandma. I want what’s best for the kids. We need to look at the big picture -- soccer, baseball, softball, different things.”
Neal said she thinks the SPLOST is a good way to raise money for such projects and hopes a future SPLOST would allow for a tennis complex to be added to the rec center and ball fields that she and other residents want in the current plan.
“I’m so thankful for it, that they’re finally putting it in subsouth,” she said.
Neal said some Macon tennis officials told her they might be able to get by with 12 courts built at the new site in order to keep the tennis tournaments they have. Neal said she could live with that plan as long as it didn’t cut other features that residents want.
“We need to invest in ourselves in this community,” she said. “A rec center could help a bunch of kids stay off the streets.”
THE TENNIS PERSPECTIVE
John O’Shaughnessey III wants to grow interest in tennis in Macon-Bibb, but to do so he thinks the county needs an additional facility to remain competitive against other cities vying for tournaments.
O’Shaughnessey, president of the Macon Tennis Association, said a new facility would not only draw people to Macon but also raise interest in the sport among subsouth residents and people in nearby cities, such as Warner Robins.
“(A tennis facility) is not so much for the association,” he said, noting the association’s goal is to boost interest in the sport in Macon. “Everyone thinks it would be awesome to spread tennis. People (in subsouth) will start playing. A large tennis facility can be successful anywhere.”
Based on calculations from the tennis association and the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau, O’Shaughnessey said the current tennis tournaments have an $8 million to $10 million economic impact on Macon-Bibb every year. O’Shaunessey said he’s been told the tournaments are Macon’s second-biggest draw for out-of-towners, behind only the springtime Cherry Blossom Festival.
O’Shaughnessey noted that the association has lost a couple of courts at both the John Drew Smith Tennis Center and Tattnall Square Park after renovations to those facilities. John Drew Smith has 18 courts that can be used for tournaments, while Tattnall has another eight. O’Shaughnessey said the association must use other tennis courts across Macon to have enough space for all the matches in a tournament, and that usually means five or six locations.
In general, he said, most tournaments want no more than three locations for a single tournament.
“Rome is building 52 courts, Columbus is adding more, Carrollton has 42. Cities know this is an economic engine,” he said. “If there’s just three sites, it feels more like a tournament.”
O’Shaughnessey said the association’s proposed tennis center isn’t an attempt to usurp the recreation money from subsouth residents. The association also wants some of the same amenities that residents want, such as walking trails and pavilions.
He recalled that Macon used to have a large number of softball tournaments each year, which also served as an economic engine for the city, but those left town after other cities offered bigger and better facilities.
“We don’t have to have another huge fail,” he said. “We lost the Flag City Shootout (softball tournament). We don’t need to lose tennis.”
If a tennis facility is built, he said, it could lead to more amenities in subsouth Bibb County, which now has few restaurants and hotels.
Waiting for another SPLOST to build a tennis facility would take too long, O’Shaughnessey said. Other cities already have started on their tennis centers, so Macon can’t afford to wait.
“The clock is ticking,” he said.
THE MACON-BIBB PERSPECTIVE
Sitting like a tennis official watching over the match is the Macon-Bibb County Commission.
Its members must decide not only how best to proceed with the subsouth property but also with several other rec facilities that are getting SPLOST money.
A series of public meetings have been held over the past several weeks for every center, allowing Murphey and other officials to take the public’s temperature on recreation needs.
The subsouth facility falls on the border of commission districts represented by Shepherd and Commissioner Elaine Lucas.
Both said they’ve received lots of feedback and are more inclined to vote for a traditional rec center instead of a tennis center.
“Personally, I’ve heard what the majority of folks are asking for,” Lucas said. “People are happy to have the resources to get a recreation facility. We want to make sure it has the basic things -- a rec center, pool, ball fields and walking trails. I’d also be willing to support tennis on a limited basis, maybe see the beginning of a tennis presence with four to six courts. There’s nothing out there for residents, so we have to put in place the necessities. Our hope is that in the future, there can be the development of a tennis complex in a future SPLOST.”
Shepherd agrees that subsouth residents want to stick with tradition.
“They wouldn’t mind a few tennis courts, but they definitely are leaning toward a rec center, ball fields, trails, a 25-meter pool. We have very limited money, and they’ve already spent $1 million to develop the plan, and it will be another $1 million or more for infrastructure. That leaves about $5 million, and the building itself will cost $3.5 million to $5 million.”
Shepherd said he would hate to see the city lose tennis tournaments, but he doesn’t think subsouth residents would use a tennis facility as much as they would a rec center.
Commissioner Larry Schlesinger, chairman of the Economic and Community Development subcommittee, said he understands both sides of the argument.
“I can’t blame the residents of subsouth for wanting a traditional rec center, and the tennis people are committed to ensure that tennis stays in Macon,” he said. “I’ll be looking to the commissioners of those districts for guidance. ... We should have a great deal of information heading into the meeting.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.