HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - The Huntsville Tennis Center recently changed its rate structure, and some of the frequent tennis players say the move makes annual passes too expensive while discouraging play.
Leaders at the Huntsville Tennis Center confirm the rates are as follows:
- Window: $7 for 2-hour session (did not change)
- New punch card system:
- Adults: 30 plays for $190, 60 plays for $360
- Seniors: 30 plays for $180, 60 plays for $335
- Annual passes:
- Adults: $560
- Family: $700
- Seniors: $525
- Senior family: $655
Before, the Huntsville Tennis Center's annual passes cost adults $420 and seniors $315.
Thursday, Thomas Estes came to the Huntsville City Council meeting to ask the council for help. Estes said the new rates are too high.
"I think that is exorbitant," he told the council. "It's just a bad business decision. You are going to dis-incentivize play at the Tennis Center."
In an earlier interview with WHNT News 19 he clarified, "It will dis-incentivize play, especially senior play. And what I've heard a lot of seniors say is they'll either play elsewhere, Decatur, maybe Guntersville, other places. They don't like the business plan. They think it is imposing, and hurts seniors."
But Huntsville leaders and the Tennis Center board say it's not meant to impose, but to fix a problem: "The past two years, we have been in the red. Which is not good," commented Joc Simmons, the center's Director of Tennis. "We kind of put the pencil to the pad, and realized some of the rates were too cheap." City leaders say that previously the center did not raise the pass rates to account for inflation the way they needed to, but maintenance costs also continue to rise.
Huntsville leaders also argue that they do support the Tennis Center. WHNT News 19 confirmed the city supplements $195,400 annually to the center to help with its operations, and the city's General Services department also does work for the center.
"The city pays the utilities, pays for the janitorial and upkeep of the building" explained Steve Ivey, Huntsville Parks and Recreation Director. "When we sat down with the board and looked at the operation budget, one of the things we came up with is changing the way we do the fee structure."
At Thursday's meeting, John Hamilton, City Administrator, explained the board's move to increase pass rates like this: "What they really sought to do is set up a fee structure that more reflects the way a business would operate."
He said the new rate structure also gives customers more options about how to play tennis.
"This is about making sure they have a fee structure that, in addition to the subsidy we provide, is able to cover their day-to-day operations," said Hamilton. "None of this is going toward making that facility better. That is coming out of the capital plan."
But Estes and his fellow concerned players say not only do they believe the senior pass system rates are too high, but the rates are higher than any other center around. They compared the pass rates to Auburn, Birmingham, and Mobile among other Alabama cities.
"Our rates are just much, much higher," said John Haskell of his assessment.
Simmons and Hamilton agree it is difficult to compare centers and what cities may charge as "apples to apples."
The fear from many concerned citizens is that Huntsville will eventually remove its subsidy to the Tennis Center operations budget in an effort to make it more self-sustaining.
Ivey said while that is the plan, and always has been, he doesn't see that happening for the next ten years or more.
"We will continue to supplement tennis. But there has to be a point where the user puts some money into it also," Ivey reasoned. "In no way do we want to get rid of tennis. We just want to make sure tennis is always something we are proud of and that facility and staff, and everything else out there, are something we can keep moving forward with."
"Trying to work both sides of the fence is hard," admitted Simmons. "I hear the complaints. I feel for them. But we do have to make some management decisions that not everybody is going to be happy with."
Simmons said the center board would watch the budget, and see if these fee changes make a difference at the end of the fiscal year. Then, they can reassess if they need to.
Meanwhile, Mayor Tommy Battle indicated that the city council should not interfere with the board's decision about the rates.
"I think we need to let the board do what the board does: run the Tennis Center," he stated.