Tennis bubble collapse spurs a lobbying effort

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

February 23, 2003|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

AND THE Columbia Association thought it had trouble enough with rebellious golfers forcing a decision that will keep Hobbit's Glen closed from August till spring 2004 for $900,000 worth of greens surgery and other refurbishing.

Now it is tennis players who will be spouting off, what with Central Maryland's worst snowstorm in 132 years having collapsed and damaged the Columbia Tennis Bubble in Owen Brown village last Sunday.

"That cut the indoor tennis facilities in Columbia by 55 percent," said Gary Kramer, in his second term of chairing the Columbia Tennis Committee, an advisory group to the Columbia Park and Recreation Association, owner of the five-court bubble. "We have only four indoor courts left, at the Columbia Athletic Club, and that was nearly at capacity, too. People are really scrambling around for places to play, and there aren't many options."

Fact is, by the bucks around, Howard County should be a year-round tennis hotbed but has only one other indoor facility now, the private, four-court Triumph Health and Fitness club in Woodbine.

And Columbia's bubble trouble is just part of the larger picture from last weekend. The heavyweight snowstorm took out similar bubbles at nearby Fairland Regional Park (a Prince George's County facility in Laurel), the private Suburban Club in Pikesville and the private West Winds Tennis and Fitness Center in Frederick.

The collapse here has started Kramer and other players lobbying association management - again - for a better facility.

"We're using this disaster to say to management that we need to stop looking at temporary fixes and build a permanent facility for indoor tennis," said Garth Finney, Tennis Committee vice chairman. "One of our goals is to show that a facility with a 40-year potential can make financial sense.

"Tennis here has grown exponentially in the last few years," Finney said. "The single largest complaint that we hear is that people can't get court time. A permanent indoor facility won't help capacity, it's true, but it will help the service provided."

Kramer said the bubble had 95 percent utilization during peak evening and weekend hours and maybe 85 percent usage overall. In U.S. Tennis Association team-tennis leagues alone, he said, more than 1,700 fee-paying adults were using the bubble - plus hundreds more youth players.

"Tennis is a money-maker, one of the few things the Columbia Association has that they agree makes money," he said. "But even before the bubble went down, there just wasn't enough capacity to service the numbers of players we have."

This is not a new debate. As Kramer put it, the Tennis Committee "has had a lot of issues" with Columbia Association management. That's interesting phrasing because it sounds far more adversarial than advisory.

The spat is at least 5 years old - rooted in 1998 debate, if not budget discussions before that, over (1) building any new indoor tennis facility in Columbia and (2) whether to try to save money on a new one by erecting a half-million-dollar fabric bubble at Owen Brown Tennis Club.

Then, the bubble was criticized by many as an eyesore, and voices from Wilde Lake village apparently had enough timbre to shuffle the bubble across U.S. 29, where it hasn't been exactly, shall we say, lovely, either.

"It was supposed to have a 15-year life," said Kramer, "but it's lasted five years. There've been other problems with it, too. It's had holes, patches, it gets cut- vandalism is a constant problem."

Maybe disaster can foster something nicer, eh? Seems like we'll be talking about it, anyway.

Along the sidelines

Triathlon: The Columbia-based Mid-Maryland Triathlon Club announced last week the scheduling of three events intended to expose children from 7 to 14 to the running, swimming and cycling events that make up triathlon.

The Give It a Tri, Kids series has been booked for June 1, July 6 and Aug. 3, all Sundays, and will be directed by Columbia resident Robert Vigorito, who founded and heads the annual Columbia Triathlon.

Seniors, those from 11 to 14, will participate in a 200-yard swim, a 7.2-mile bike race and a 1.2-mile run. Juniors, those from 7 to 10, will have a 100-yard swim, a 4.8-mile bike circuit and a 0.6-mile run.

Events will be centered on the Clemens Crossing pool in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village.

Each participant will have to pay a $20 entry fee.

Information: www.midmdtriclub.org.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to Lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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