By Rick Vach, ustaflorida.com
Naples Tennis Club & Resort owner Craig Bouchard
and Naples tennis supporters (photos: Jordan Vaughan)
Bouchard speaking before the Collier County Commission
Naples tennis supporters
Advocacy in Action
Between recent Florida tax cuts that have resulted in reductions in city and county services and the depressed U.S. economy, many tennis facilities across the state are struggling and in need of tennis advocacy. In the case of the Naples Tennis Center & Resort, local tennis advocate Janet Kauffman says a large part was simply putting on a show of community support to local authorities.
"Having attended many meetings with the planning commission and with the county commissioners, five words resonated in their statements -- that 'they didn't see enough support' for the issue before them," Kauffman said.
Kauffman and her fellow advocates formed a "Campaign 200" team with a strategy to bring together 200 supporters and "focus on the positives within the community as well as at the heart of the community which is The Naples Tennis Club."
Members of the team were tasked with contacting different groups for support, collecting letters of support, printing t-shirts, organizing buses and members to attend county meetings, collecting supporting statistics, contacting tennis league captains and players, USTA Florida organizers, and lining up speakers on behalf of the tennis center's value to the community.
"The e-mails that my friends and contemporaries sent to the commissioners all stated that they had played at Naples Tennis Club for a tournament or sectionals, lived in the community at one time or another, or were former members," Kauffman said. "The e-mails reflected their connection with this jewel in Collier County. The commissioners could feel the passion of the supporters for our community and tennis facility. The commissioners also stated they had received voluminous amounts of e-mail supporting this facility."
Kauffman said that having no previous experience as a tennis advocate did not hold her or the group back.
"I have no previous experience as a community organizer," Kauffman said. "Persistence and asking people in person pays off."
Naples tennis organizers all acknowledged the difference the tennis facility made to the quality of life for young and old alike, something which resonates across the state of Florida.
"We all know what a difference an investment in community tennis can do to improve the quality of life for children and families," says USTA Florida volunteer and Past President Celia Rehm, who advocates for tennis facilities in her home community of Northeast Florida. "After-school tennis programs keep kids safe, providing a positive alternative to the streets or hanging out at home alone without parental supervision. Tennis is one of only a few sports that can be played into one's seventies and eighties, and provides important physical-fitness benefits by promoting a healthy lifestyle while fighting obesity and heart disease."
For more information on advocating for tennis or a tennis facility in your community, see the USTA Florida Advocacy Toolkit at http://www.usatennisflorida.usta.com/?sc_itemid=65ec1f94-0d12-443e-be6f-9978d5113787
The Naples tennis community is arguably the strongest in all of Florida -- a tennis mecca where a large senior population stays active year-round, while junior programs in the area nurture the next generation of life-long players. Last year alone, league participation in Naples grew approximately 25% to 5,025 players.
So when financial hardship threatened the closure of the 38-court Naples Tennis Club & Resort, the Naples tennis community responded en masse with a show of advocacy. Local government officials found that hundreds of bused-in tennis supporters wearing matching t-shirts are hard to ignore.
"We have the largest number of participating league players in the state for USTA leagues. This is very important to us. This facility is the largest in the state," said local league organizer Linda Kleitch. "This facility has been around for at least 31 years. It has always had its ups and downs in making enough to maintain the facility -- forget about making money, there is no such thing."
Like many large tennis facilities the Naples Tennis Club & Resort strives to strike a balance between keeping membership and court fees reasonable and covering costs, which often results in not much more than a break-even prospect. With the club facing foreclosure, owner Craig Bouchard proposed to the local county commission a 48-unit temporary housing complex to affordably house the thousands of players that visit Naples each month to compete in regional, national and international tennis tournaments and league events at the club.
"Being able to house [players] at the club instead of sending them to local hotels will make our facility profitable into the next generation," Bouchard said.
After the club fought for a meeting before the county commission, local player and organizer Janet Kauffman put on her advocacy cap, creating t-shirts for supporters of the club to wear at the Collier County Commission hearing, white t-shirts emblazoned with I LOVE NAPLES TENNIS CLUB, printed with a bright red heart.
"The victory was worth the efforts of many," Kauffman said. "It was a team effort, consisting of Craig, Ted, Karen, the eight speakers, 206-plus supporters, voluminous amounts of e-mails from residents and communities in Collier County...I can't take credit for the t-shirts, that was Craig's idea."
USTA Florida Executive Director Doug Booth was among the many supporters to speak on behalf of the club, and of the benefit of public tennis facilities on the health and welfare of area residents.
"In Doug's closing comments, he said, 'I want our next generation of children to look just like all these people when they are adults.....slim and healthy,' turning to the standing-room-only group of supporters," Kleitch said. "Doug is like that old ad, 'When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.' They passed the vote, and someone on the panel told me that Doug Booth needs to receive the kudos for that. Doug was maybe the seventh speaker, and when he finished there were more than 59 speakers [in line], but they deferred to Doug's speech. That was pretty big. He told them that if they didn't approve this, it would be on their shoulders that the children of the next generation would be obese and be diabetics and it would be [the council's] fault. But [he told it] in a nice positive way."
It was a hard-fought victory for Bouchard and the Naples Tennis Club and Resort, which was forced to sue the county after they were taken off the agenda of an earlier commission meeting. After suing the county, Bouchard and his group were added to the agenda of the meeting in December 2009. A second meeting in January was when the group finally received approval for the housing from the Collier County Board of Commissioners.
"Our members volunteer at the drop of a hat," Bouchard said. "They care about their club and each other. A high percentage of our 400 members play tennis six times per week. The only thing that surprised me was that they were willing to take a day away from the tennis court to sit in the county court!"
Now members of the Naples tennis community return to the courts with the knowledge that the Naples Tennis Club & Resort will be there not only for the active tennis population but for the next generation of players.
"We need these facilities and we need children to be able to play tennis, and learn and grow. I don't know if I'm an advocate," Kleitch said. "But you have to be a little gutsy to do this -- it is an opportunity to right a wrong."