Laura Bowen, the executive director of the USTA Florida section, participates in a question and answer session to discuss the situation with regard to USTA Florida potentially taking over the management of the tennis facility at Riverside Park in Vero Beach.
Tell us a bit about the USTA Florida Facility Management Program?
LAURA BOWEN: Our Board of Directors started looking at tennis management services in early 2017. Several of our Board members have spent decades managing public tennis centers in Florida. Unfortunately, budget pressures on cities had led some municipalities in the state to consider eliminating tennis courts when they are not being used. Several public parks had reached out to us over the years and asked if USTA Florida would help manage their public tennis facilities. We decided to get into the management business to help prevent facilities from closing AND to learn more about why public tennis centers were struggling to bring in new players.
It’s important to share that, although direct management is something we can offer, it’s not all that we do, and not all facilities are a fit for us. More often than not, we provide different levels of advice and guidance to cities who request it. This can be as simple as answering questions about clay court maintenance or getting bids on projects and as complicated as a full facility evaluation and transformation. We will provide guidance and professional assessments to any city that requests it – for free.
What communities are currently part of this program and how has it been received?
LAURA BOWEN: Our first location was Racquet Club of Cocoa Beach, which we started managing in December of 2017. We added Fort Walton Beach Tennis Center and the city-owned courts in Gainesville in 2019. In all three instances, we met with the community before we took on the location to listen to what the residents and players wanted. We then tailored our programs and services around their needs. In all three cases, programs have expanded, revenues have increased, and we now have strong relationships with the communities.
It’s common for residents to view USTA Florida as an outsider who is coming in to change everything. It’s also common for people to view USTA Florida as just leagues and tournaments. In reality, we are an organization of volunteers, staff and players who play and deliver tennis all over the state. We see ourselves as a community partner that is willing to take our resources and expertise and apply them to bring more tennis play opportunities to the community. We understand that it takes a little bit of a leap of faith on both sides to go into a partnership, but the outcome has universally been positive.
What is USTA Florida paid by communities to run this management program? How do the financials work?
LAURA BOWEN: We are a 501c4 not-for-profit organization. When we take on a facility, we are not interested in making money. Same goes for our programs. We exist to grow the game of tennis. We are willing to absorb extra costs of programs in order to get more people playing tennis locally.
Our goals with tennis management are first and foremost to keep tennis courts from being eliminated due to lack of use, and second, to provide as many tennis programs and play opportunities to the community as possible. We are not paid anything from the cities for our services. Quite the opposite. To date, we have invested more than $2 million in the three facilities we manage. Every dime we have collected in revenue has gone into programs, play and facility improvements. When/if the facility is profitable, we put that money back into the facility. We also provide clear and transparent financial reports to our city partners. The city sees exactly what we spend and what we bring in.
People in Vero Beach are worried that if the USTA Florida comes in to manage its Riverside Park public courts that fees will be increased. Will they?
LAURA BOWEN: Let me start by stating clearly that USTA Florida has not presented any contract for management services to the city. We have provided an assessment of the current services and our recommendations for growth, which I personally promised to the Recreation Commission at its February meeting.
We have been asked questions and have provided information on the types of contracts we normally do. That doesn’t mean we would do the same thing in a contract with the City of Vero Beach. Every situation is different. We made a decision not to enter contract negotiations with the City of Vero Beach without the council and community supporting those efforts.
Reports that we approached the city initially to “take over” the facility are also inaccurate. I personally received a request from tennis advocates in the summer of 2021 to come to Vero and discuss the possibility of managing the location. This request came immediately after a separate group offered to convert four of the courts to pickleball and manage those courts under a proposed agreement with the city.
We have recommended in our assessment that the daily court fees be reduced. The current drop-in rates are high compared to other public tennis facilities in the State of Florida. The membership rates are also out of line with best practices in the state of Florida. Some are low and some are reasonable, but they do not align. Again, we explain this in our assessment. Ultimately, the city council determines the fees at the tennis center, not USTA Florida.
Another concern is that people who have their normal everyday morning games will now have their court time taken away. Could this happen?
LAURA BOWEN: No. We want to expand programs, not replace them. Morning round-robin play seems to be vibrant and should continue.
Will there still be free court time offered at Riverside Park if the USTA Florida takes over its management?
LAURA BOWEN: We offer free court time at all of our facilities for various reasons. This is a common practice.
What will happen to the current staff at Riverside Park Tennis if the USTA Florida comes in?
LAURA BOWEN: The current staff are employees of the City of Vero Beach. That is a question for the city. We do not comment on what another entity should do with its employees.
USTA Florida is an equal opportunity employer. We create jobs based on needs at each location and grade them appropriately. All of our job openings are posted publicly on Indeed and they include pay rates. We also have an independent compensation consultant that audits all positions and pay to ensure equity and fairness.
We have not created any job descriptions for Riverside. That would only occur if we entered into a contract negotiation. As mentioned previously, we are not at that point.
What happens to the freelance tennis pros who currently teach at Riverside Park?
LAURA BOWEN: Tennis professionals who have a contract with the city would need to discuss their contract terms with the city. We have provided recommendations in our assessment regarding best practices that many cities apply in their contracts with tennis professionals who teach on city-owned courts. The City of Vero Beach is welcome to follow those recommendations or not.
USTA Florida directly employs all of our teaching professionals. We do this for a variety of reasons, mainly to ensure all teaching professionals are certified, trained, Safe Play approved, and background checked. We provide all training and professional development and support for those employees at our cost.
Will the USTA have a tennis pro shop at Riverside Park that could potentially compete with other tennis stores in Vero Beach?
LAURA BOWEN: We have not assessed this portion of the existing operation, but the building appears too small for an operation that would compete with a local tennis shop. The typical things we offer at our other locations are balls and stringing services. We do not typically offer merchandise in the way that a private club or local tennis shop does.
Will the USTA still allow St. Edwards to have its varsity, junior varsity and middle school tennis matches and programming at Riverside Park?
LAURA BOWEN: Yes. We do this at our other locations. It’s usually written into our contracts with the cities.
What kind of programs would you be implementing that locals can perhaps participate in and look forward to?
LAURA BOWEN: As noted in our assessment, youth programs seem to be a missing piece. We first visited Riverside in August of 2021 and asked if there were weekly summer camps being provided. We were told there were not. That is a big entry point for kids of all ages. It’s also important for any tennis center to have regular after-school programs for youth of all ages. Those generally happen from 3-6pm. Adaptive (Special Olympics), wheelchair tennis, and adult beginner programs are also areas of opportunity that we are seeing thrive at other public tennis centers.
Would local residents have to join the USTA to play at the courts? To play in clinics or play in tournaments or round-robins or leagues?
LAURA BOWEN: No. You are only required to be a USTA member to play in USTA Adult Leagues and Sanctioned Tournaments. USTA Membership requirements and pricing is set by the USTA (national) board.
What kind of facility upgrades would the USTA Florida implement and who would pay for it? New nets? Windscreens? Court resurfacing?
LAURA BOWEN: Our understanding is the city has already purchased new windscreens. We have offered to resurface the four remaining courts and provide nets, at our expense.
It’s important for the city and the residents to understand that USTA Florida and USTA offer grants for things like court improvements, equipment and programs. These funds are available to public tennis centers across the state. We have advised the city to use these grants to help cover some of these costs in the future.
What else would you like to share?
LAURA BOWEN: Tennis is booming in Florida. According to the Tennis Industry Association’s annual participation report, Florida saw a 26% increase in play in 2020, and another 8% increase in 2021. The majority of that play is happening on public tennis courts. Public tennis centers across the state are seeing tremendous growth. To reinvigorate the courts at Riverside to be a place for new players to come and participate with the existing residents would be fantastic for tennis and for the city.
Whatever the residents and city decide in terms of management of the facility, USTA Florida will continue to provide our support to all tennis facilities in Vero Beach.
We are looking forward to having a more direct dialog with residents, and are hopeful that we can schedule a public town hall in the coming weeks.