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City courts tennis success

With youth sports a civic priority, Anaheim is helping spruce up a run-down municipal facility and renovating an old house on site.

September 18, 2007|Dave Mckibben | By D and Times Staff Writer

Overgrown trees, shrubs and weeds hide the entrance to the Anaheim Tennis Center. Hundreds of faded tennis balls sit atop a fence that encloses three badly weathered practice courts. Broken windows, inoperable drinking fountains and chipped blue paint give the 30-year-old tennis club an abandoned look.

But this week, the city of Anaheim and the club's new operator will begin a two- to three-year reclamation project to turn this dilapidated city-owned facility into what they say will be one of the finest tennis venues in Orange County.

"It's a great place; it just needs some work," said Steve Swaim, Anaheim's community services director. "Anaheim is known for having great sports venues . . . the Honda Center and Angel Stadium. There's no reason why this tennis center can't be a premier sports facility."

The catalyst and centerpiece of the tennis center's rebirth is the Wagner House, an 82-year-old, two-story farmhouse that once overlooked a vast potato field. The city plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars converting the structure into a clubhouse that will host meetings, weddings and parties.

"There aren't many tennis clubs that have this kind of charm," Swaim said. "We're talking about a 1920s farmhouse on land that was the potato capital of Orange County."

Swaim said Anaheim had the option of selling the club or leaving it in its current condition.

"We have a facility that isn't realizing its potential," he said. "It begs for us to do something exciting rather than leave it status quo. Youth sports for our community is a priority, and this facility will definitely meet the development needs of getting more youths entering into the tennis world."

Over the last 15 years, some 20 private tennis clubs in Southern California have been bulldozed to make way for housing, shopping centers and offices. But Councilwoman Lucille Kring said that option didn't make sense for the Anaheim Tennis Center.

"I would never support razing a historic building to make way for housing," she said. "There are too many other areas in this city where housing can go. We should maintain the character of the area as a tennis facility. It will add to the quality of life for our residents and visitors."

The city will also be responsible for upgrading and landscaping walkways and renovating the parking lot. Mike Nelson, the club's new operator, is spending $125,000 on court improvements, including resurfacing the 12 courts in U.S. Open blue and green, replacing court fencing and upgrading lighting. Nelson, the head pro at Ridgeline Country Club in Orange, signed a 20-year contract last month. In return, Nelson will pay the city about $30,000 a year in rent.

Standing in the courtyard beneath a soaring pine, Nelson said he envisioned the Anaheim Tennis Center becoming another Los Angeles Tennis Club, a stately private facility in an older section of the city that has about 400 members and a waiting list. Membership at the Anaheim facility has dipped to 66.

"In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this was one of the hottest clubs in north Orange County," Nelson said. "It had a great social scene, and people would come from all over to play. But the private clubs raided a lot of their members, and this place just got forgotten."

Nelson hopes to bring the tennis center back to prominence with leagues, tournaments, a matchmaking service and clinics aimed at attracting middle-aged men and women to the courts.

"The seniors are the players who played tennis during the sport's heyday of the 1970s and 1980s," Nelson said. "Now they have the discretionary time and money to play, but they've moved on to other activities."

For youths, Nelson said he would offer a tennis academy, summer camps, tournaments and free clinics to local elementary and middle school students who may never have picked up a racket. With recent budget cuts, Anaheim schools no longer teach tennis in physical education classes.

He said he also planned to open a fitness and health center and acquire a license to serve beer and wine. Nelson's goals are lofty -- he hopes to triple membership and more than double revenue by 2010.

Memberships are expected to cost $115 a month for families, $85 for singles and $50 for children. Rates for drop-in players are expected to range from $4 to $12 an hour, depending on the time and day.

Kring said she was eagerly awaiting Nelson's vision to take shape.

"This is something that's probably 10 years overdue," she said. "The place is tired and it needs a face lift. But thank God someone is willing to take it over. If we can make this tennis center a showcase, where people can go for tournaments, weddings and banquets, it can be great asset to the community."

Swaim said it was unclear how much the clubhouse remodel project would cost the city.

"We won't know what we need to do until we get in there, but it's a big undertaking when you rehab a building that old," he said. "We want to keep it historical and keep that charm."

On a sunny weekday afternoon, days before Nelson officially took over control of the club from Ron Metcalf, the tennis center was deserted until 17-year-old Henry Chomeau of Newport Beach showed up for a private lesson. Chomeau has been playing at the tennis center five years and has watched the club "decay."

"It's kind of a dump," he said. "So I'm really happy about what they have planned. Sometimes it's nice to have a little bit of luxury when you're playing tennis."

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david.mckibben@latimes.com

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