Thursday, December 18, 2008

Blackburn Tennis Contract Cancelation, it doesn't pass the smell test.

County angers Blackburn players
By Bill Florence for The Crier

Charlie Dixon and his friends are worried.
Every weekday for the past 19 years, Dixon and his group of almost 70 mostly retired men in their 60’s and 70’s meet at Blackburn Tennis Center for three hours of tennis and fellowship. It’s an important daily ritual that provides the men with good exercise, a chance to get outdoors and companionship. As Dixon puts it, “it helps keep us alive.”

Dixon is effusive in his praise for Jon Niemeyer, who has held a county contract to operate Blackburn since the center opened in 1976. When Niemeyer opened Blackburn on Ashford Dunwoody Road 32 years ago, there were only four courts and a trailer that housed the pro shop.
Today, Blackburn boasts 18 lighted courts, along with a fully-stocked pro shop, a staff of five teaching professionals, wheelchair access, ball machine rentals and a junior tennis academy. In 2005, USA Today named Blackburn as one of the top 10 public tennis centers in the country.

But, Niemeyer’s days operating Blackburn may be numbered.
Approximately one month ago, Niemeyer met with a representative of Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm. The representative told Niemeyer the firm had been retained by the DeKalb Parks and Recreation Department to assess the operating contracts for the county’s three tennis centers and two golf courses in preparation for the county seeking to rebid the contracts. DeKalb officials are expected to receive the consultant’s report this week.

The news stunned Niemeyer. Not only does he still have two years remaining on his current contract to manage both Blackburn and the DeKalb Tennis Center near Emory, but, according to Niemeyer, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) believes the two tennis centers he manages are the only two public tennis facilities in Metro Atlanta, and perhaps the state, that earn a profit.

“We clearly have the number one public tennis center in Atlanta, so it seems very odd the county wants to do this now,” said Niemeyer. “Every other public tennis center around us is losing money, including the county’s facility in south DeKalb, and the county want to end our contract? Something is rotten, because this just doesn’t make sense.”

Niemeyer said Blackburn had made money despite the county’s refusal to maintain the center’s asphalt courts, as required in the contract. “Our courts are in terrible shape,” said Niemeyer. “The county says they don’t have money to resurface the courts. Because the county won’t fix the courts, we’ve lost the national wheelchair tournament we held for 20 years.” “Worse, we’ve lost the opportunity to host major USTA Southern and national events. Last year, a USTA event we’ve hosted four times in the past brought in $8 million for Mobile, Alabama. USTA has told me they would love to come back here, because of our proximity to Perimeter Mall hotels and restaurants, but they won’t come back until our courts are fixed.”

The county’s desire to terminate Niemeyer’s contract prematurely, and after 32 continuous years of operating Blackburn, infuriates Dixon. “This just isn’t fair,” said Dixon. “How can they do this when he still has a contract? My friends and I can’t understand the county’s rationale. It’s such a no-brainer to keep Jon here. He’s good for tennis, good for business, and he’s good for DeKalb.”

Dixon said he’s heard rumors out-going DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones wants to terminate Niemeyer’s contract before Jones leaves office at year’s end. The reason? To allegedly open the door for one of Jones’ friends to take over the profitable Blackburn and DeKalb tennis center’s contract. However, Dixon said even if the Jones rumors are false, he and his friends don’t understand the county’s reasons for ending Niemeyer’s contract. DeKalb County spokesperson Kristie Swink said the Parks and Recreation Department has no complaints with Niemeyer. Instead, Swink said the Parks Department, like all county departments, was reviewing its operations to find additional revenue sources and reduce spending.

“With the challenging economic conditions we face, the new CEO, Burrell Ellis, has asked every department to go over their existing contracts with a fine tooth comb,” said Swink. “The Parks Department feels it’s in the county’s best interests to rebid Mr. Niemeyer’s contract. No one is saying he’s not going a good job. But, he’s held the contract for more than 30 years. Mr. Niemeyer is welcome to submit a new bid in the next few months when we post the request for proposal. The county wants to make sure taxpayers dollars are being spent wisely.”

Dixon isn’t satisfied with the county’s response. “I’m worried that the county may be strapped for cash, particularly with Dunwoody becoming a city,” said Dixon. “But, Niemeyer is part of the solution, not the problem. This is Jon’s livelihood, and something he’s invested the last 32 years of his life in making a success. Ending his contract now just isn’t right.”

Tennis, anyone? "A lot of sports, over the years, become a game," says legendary tennis star Billie Jean King, ranked No. 1 in the world five times between 1966 and 1972, listed in the top 10 for 17 years and a four-time winner of the U.S. Open, which starts Monday and runs through Sept. 11. "If you are into tennis, it becomes part of your lifestyle," she says.

Today, she is an active promoter of public access and public programs in tennis (70% of all tennis in the USA is played on public-access courts). "I'm a product of the public parks system, and if I had not had my first free group lesson at Houghton Park in Long Beach, I may not have become a tennis player." Here, she shares with USA TODAY's Shawn Sell some favorite public spots to "keep tennis alive in hometowns" and elsewhere.

Blackburn Tennis Center, Atlanta
Here in Atlanta, "they really enjoy their tennis," King says, and there is "an abundance of excellent tennis facilities, such as the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center, Stone Mountain and Blackburn, an outstanding county facility that features 18 lighted hard courts and instruction for all levels." 770-451-1061

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