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Jonesville Tennis Unites Alachua County

May 21, 2009 07:00 AM
 



By Rick Vach

The Jonesville Tennis Center celebrated its grand opening on May 9, one month after local players had literally taken over the courts of the partially-finished facility with a nod from Alachua County officials.

"On April 9 we received word at 3:30 p.m. that we could open the center, with only nine of the 14 courts finished at that time," said Christine Shurtleff, president of the Gainesville Area Community Tennis Association, a USTA Florida Community Tennis Association (CTA). "By 4:30 p.m., [Director of Tennis] Dave Porter was giving his first lesson there, and by evening word had gotten out and every court was filled. It's been that way most evenings ever since. Our 'Grand Opening' on May 9 was just the icing on the cake. The cake itself had arrived on April 9th!"

Located on the outskirts of the west side of Gainesville, the tennis center's claycourts are catering to a fast-growing adult and junior tennis demographic. The sought-after claycourts are easier on players' bodies and cooler during the brutal Florida summers, factors which Shurtleff says are attractive to recent retirees and senior players.

"When I began working on this project, I made it quite clear that I would help only if a claycourt facility was built," Shurtleff said. "In spite of the cost objections, I held my ground."

Shurtleff first staked her ground in 2003 when she realized the need for another public facility in the area. The eight-hardcourt Westside Park facility, the only staffed public facility in Gainesville, had maxed out in terms of serving the growing tennis community.

"There was a need for another facility, particularly in the growing area of western Alachua County," Shurtleff said. "Participation in USTA League play was escalating, and trying to schedule so many teams was becoming a nightmare. Each year we had more and more teams playing out of our one staffed public facility."

Thus began a six-year advocacy effort that ended with $1.1 million provided by Alachua County; $600,000 from Porter, who has a 10-year management contract as director; four private donors; pro bono architect work from a local league player; monetary contributions from the Gainesville CTA and USTA Florida, and additional support from players and volunteers. And volunteer construction people and handymen. And a volunteer accountant. And a volunteer...you get the idea. "The list is endless," Shurtleff says.

Volunteers have been the engine behind the Jonesville facility's momentum -- from the inception of the idea six years ago, to Shurtleff marveling during the grand opening as approximately 40 volunteers greeted visitors, introduced youngsters and adults alike to QuickStart Tennis, and dotting the facility's claycourts with mini-nets and the next generation of tennis players.

"The pros led the on-court carnival games with prizes for all, helped by some of the USTA Jr. Team Tennis kids," Shurtleff said. "Others did a fantastic job of 'meet and greet,' while others worked our raffle and silent auction tables, which raised $1,000. Actually, we have volunteers offering help all the time. That's the magic of our new public facility. Everyone has embraced it as 'our' facility. Some help groom the courts at night, which is still being done by hand. The management budget is very slim at the moment, and we have no golf cart to help out. And the budget will remain slim for a while, since the fees for playing are so low [$3 for walk-on and $5 for reserved)], and Dave Porter allows the kids to play free as long as courts are available."

In addition, the facility boasts a pro shop and equipment/storage building, a "show court" near the entrance, a hitting wall and a "beach tennis" court. In short order the facility has already hosted a high school district tournament, a USTA Florida junior tournament, and is eying a USTA Florida Adult Regional Championship and a low-level men's or women's pro event.

The first-ever tennis facility owned by Alachua County (do NOT refer to this facility as belonging to the City of Gainesville, Shurtleff warns) was not just a joint effort between the Gainesville-area CTA and the county. The six-year process was an uphill battle, with soldiers including various community leaders who worked in relative obscurity, the Gainesville-area CTA's board, and the army of on-call volunteers. The result was a public/private partnership, one of the few avenues available to produce a premier recreational public facility in the midst of an economic downturn.

New public tennis facilities remain in demand across Florida, where adult and junior league participation and play is outpacing court availability. Increased junior play can be seen in the 84% increase in junior racquet sales over the last five years, and a roughly 25% increase in overall adult and junior player participation during that time. The major focus of the Jonesville Tennis Center will be increased junior play opportunities and junior development -- this as tennis in the U.S. currently experiences its best five-year growth stretch since the 1970s tennis boom.

"In these tough economic times for recreational divisions around our country, to see a public 14 claycourt facility be built from the ground up is truly inspiring," says Andy McFarland, USTA Florida associate executive director, Play Tennis Division. "This only proves that tennis is growing in the Sunshine State and its going to be great for the residents of Alachua County for many years to come. What Dave Porter and Christine Shurtleff of the Gainesville CTA have done is amazing."

For now, or at least until the next tournament or event, Shurtleff and her fellow tennis advocates can sit back and enjoy what they have created in the Northeast Florida countryside. The tireless advocate, who USTA Florida Executive Director Doug Booth describes as "the woman that doesn't know how to take 'no' for an answer" can, at least for the moment, kick up her feet and wax philosophical about what a new tennis facility can do to bring together a community.

"We have some folks coming out in the evening just to absorb the atmosphere in this quiet setting, delighted to see all the tennis activity, particularly the mix of players, including adults and juniors and family groups," Shurtleff said. "There is a fantastic dynamism to the facility, very difficult to describe, but highly palpable. And not to be missed is the sun setting behind the large oak trees dripping with Spanish moss."
 

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