The city started leasing the Las Positas Tennis Court facility to Elings Park for $1 per year in 2010, to reduce the financial burden of running the facility.
But since the hand-off, tennis players say the cost to play is too high, excluding many of the people who had played there in the past.
“My children and I played tennis at Elings Park when it was a public tennis court,” said Glen Gibbons, who lives in Bel Air Knowles near Elings Park. “My children and I, unfortunately, no longer play there because it is has essentially become a private club.”
Gibbons spoke at Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting during an annual report presentation by Elings Park.
“The city gave away a valuable public amenity for $1 a year,” he said. “That’s poor stewardship.”
The City Council made drastic cuts to the parks and recreation budget over a five-year period, from 2008-2012, and cut employee positions.
The council approved an 18-year lease of the courts with Elings Park, which sits atop a decommissioned city landfill.
Santa Barbara resident Karin VanHoek said she has played at the facility since 1988. She’s appalled that children now have to pay $8 a day to play and adults pay $250 for an annual pass.
The city, when it ran the courts, used to charge $150 for unlimited access.
“Our public tennis facility Las Positas, where many of us have played for decades, was taken from us and handed to a private entity, Elings Park, for $1 a year,” VanHoek said. “An entire community of tennis players has been disbanded because of Elings management.”
City officials, however, feel differently. At Tuesday’s meeting, they said Elings Park has done a tremendous job managing the facility, and running the courts is too expensive for the city to handle.
“Call me hard-hearted if you will, but I believe tennis should be treated the same way golf is in this city,” Councilman Dale Francisco said. “It should be paid for entirely by the people who play.”
Francisco said the public-private partnership is a good model for the taxpayers.
“The whole reason we have this partnership with Elings is because the city could not afford to take care of that park,” Francisco said. “I have heard people say repeatedly we are giving away this valuable thing for $1 a year. No, what we are giving away is the cost.”
Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said she felt like “we broke the spirit” of the lease by allowing the privatization of the courts. She suggested that the city consider reopening talks of breaking the lease, but she received no support from her colleagues.
“I think the park is trying its best,” Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said. “I wish you good luck and continued success.”
Elings Park is about to embark on a large fundraising campaign and discussions of ending the lease would not be helpful, Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Rapp said. She said the reality is that Elings is managing the park well and is very successful with its other activities, such as softball and baseball tournaments, weddings, parties and other events.
“The city has always struggled with how it was going to meet and fund park and recreation needs for the community,” Rapp said.
Francisco said the city should not be subsidizing tennis players and that Elings Park should continue on its path.
“We are going to have to find another way to fund these kinds of activities other than the taxpayers picking up the tab,” Francisco said.