Steve Annacone saw potential in the tennis program at Fowler Park from an aerial photo of the site online.
The courts had been laid out in sets of two — a rare arrangement that’s better for viewing — and the landscaping and design of the complex looked beautiful. The tennis facility also had an empty indoor office centered among the 12 courts.
“I looked, and I said ‘Oh my gosh, this place is amazing.’ I can tell there’s a lot of thought that went into the setup of it,” said Annacone, president of Annacone Tennis Management. “This is already there. The big thing now is to try to get a little bit of organization, try to make it more efficient, get the word out that it’s there and get everybody excited about the whole thing.”
His Tennessee-based firm submitted a proposal to manage the complex and assumed operations last month.
Michael Greene, new director of the Fowler program, has more than 25 years of experience in the tennis industry and more than 40 years of playing the sport. He’s been fielding many questions since moving into the pro shop about three weeks ago.
Some echo his enthusiasm for improving the program, but others have expressed concern about the privatization of a county facility and charging a fee to play.
County resident Vickie Whitaker said she speaks for dozens of local players who weren’t happy with the decision to charge a court fee, which came as a surprise.
“We paid for that park with tax dollars, and now they’re going to charge us to just drop over there and play tennis,” said Whitaker, adding that the government did not solicit input on the plan.
She’ll continue to pay team fees to play in a league at Sharon Springs, she said, but she won’t be playing any pickup games at Fowler.
County commissioners sought proposals for tennis management firms in April, and accepted the bid from Annacone Tennis Management in August.
The county decided to go with a professional company to bring “a level of service and tennis programming above the general recreation programs offered at other parks,” said Jerry Kinsey, director of parks and recreation.
“This will give tennis players from beginner to advanced a place to practice, play and advance their skills beyond what has been offered in the past,” he said.
The arrangement will also bring in more revenue to the parks department, Kinsey said during a July commission work session.
The county receives percentages of fees and is guaranteed $2,075 per month in charges, utilities and water, Kinsey said.
Commissioner Todd Levent said the arrangement isn’t unusual when compared to other sports in the county, in which booster clubs pay fees to rent space and run programs from parks.
“Although these citizens voted to build these parks on referendums with property taxes,” Levent said, “we still have to come up with the funding to maintain it.”
He felt comfortable with the “nominal fees” that users of the court will pay to help with the overhead costs.
The court fee at Fowler is set at $2.50 per person to rent a court for an hour. The other five parks with tennis courts in the county will remain free for open play, as Fowler had been since debuting in early 2011.
Like Whitaker, Sharon Thomas also plays at Sharon Springs Park. Though Fowler’s fees don’t affect her directly, the county resident felt “it just didn’t seem right” to charge for a taxpayer-funded facility.”
“It didn’t seem right to me that the county could give the capital that it cost to build the thing — just give it to a private company,” she said. “Even though they’re paying something, they didn’t have any investment in it.”
Annacone said aside from generating fees and paying those back to the county, the firm will offer discounts and give preference to residents.
“People paid money initially to get the park built, and we want to make sure that they’re the ones benefitting from it,” he said. “There’s got to be some money from somewhere coming in to pay for these things … The upkeep of it is expensive.”
His firm runs nearly a dozen tennis programs at private clubs and resorts, as well as public parks across the nation.
They specialize in providing quality instruction for players of all levels and ages.
“I get a lot of satisfaction just helping people get better,” he said. “We’re very into the instructional part of tennis. The reason for it is if people get better at it, they want to keep playing and it makes it more fun.”
The local management will also host free events and offer several types of programs at the complex, as well as providing onsite assistance for visitors and racquet stringing at the pro shop.
Annacone hopes to improve the moderately used facility into a standard-setter for a complex in the Atlanta area.
“We want people to be proud of what’s there, and really happy that we’re there. It’s going to take time,” he said. “The transition is always tough.”