Taking a page out of the playbook of Confederate General Robert E. Lee — who famously opined that the best defense was a good offense — Danny Vickers, director of Elings Park, held a press conference to lambast the leaders of the small but determined cadre of tennis players angry about the threefold fee-increase Vickers imposed at the Las Positas Tennis Courts at the base of Elings Park. Vickers charged that the boycott of the Las Positas Tennis Courts waged by former players is not really motivated by sticker shock but is in reality a “fight over control of the facility.” Vickers contended the courts (which were publicly managed until City Hall leased them to Elings Park two years ago, a lease that expires in 2028 along with the lease for the rest of the park) have long been dominated by a small group of tennis-playing men who are now upset they will have to share the courts with children, families, and new members.
In a 13-page report, Vickers charged that outsiders seeking to use the courts have been made to feel unwelcome by the leadership of the opposition. “We have heard and witnessed many examples of this behavior,” Vickers stated. He claimed that some especially territorial and entitled players have refused to yield the courts to new players when their time was up, that park monitors would be “yelled at or ignored,” and that Elings Park staff “routinely empty trash cans full of beer cans where groups would drink alcohol at the facility.” Some players were sufficiently aggressive, Vickers added, such that “the general public, particularly families, was not comfortable playing there.”
Vickers took pains to state his criticisms were not aimed at all the 500 people who’ve signed a petition protesting the increase in tennis fees, just the leadership. Vickers didn’t mention David Niles by name, but he may as well have. Niles, who estimates he’s played three to four times a week at the Las Positas courts for the past 18 years, has emerged as a leading voice of the resistance in the form of LasPositasTennis.com. Niles contends that Vickers and Elings Park want to transform what for years had been a city-built, -owned, and -operated municipal tennis court into a “new luxury court with a junior tennis academy.”
Niles claims the higher new fees have chased off players of limited means and wants City Hall to reclaim the courts. “Public tennis is public tennis,” he stated. “There’s low monitoring, low amenities, low overhead, and low fees.” And Niles denied Vickers’s allegations of territorial hooliganism by some tennis players. He said players willingly cede the courts when their time is up, that children play there all the time, and there’s no yelling or hollering. “They can say all this stuff,” he said, “but it’s not true.”
City Hall leased the courts to Elings two years ago at the height of a budget crisis that depleted the number of Parks and Recreation staff by 25 percent and the department’s general-fund contribution by one-third. Parks and Rec chief Nancy Rapp said the city would save more than $15,000 a year turning the operation of the courts over to Elings and avoid $1.1 million in long-term deferred improvements. Elings, one of the few privately owned but publically open parks in the nation, appeared the perfect fit.
Vickers bristled at Niles’s accusation that the Las Positas courts are going Gucci — “That’s just not accurate” — but he acknowledged big changes are afoot at Las Positas. Everything but the courts themselves, he said, will be leveled under Elings’s master plan and replaced. “It will be solid, not lavish,” he stated. The bathroom has been leaking for 10 years, he said, and will be replaced. Likewise, a new parking lot will be paved, new lights installed, new offices built. “If you’re going to level the place, you may as well add things to make it sustainable,” he explained. To this end, Elings has proposed building a brand-new multipurpose exercise room, where yoga and fitness classes could be offered.
All this, Vickers said, will cost about $1.2 million to build, and about $120,000 a year to maintain. The new membership fees, he said, will generate half that. The rest will be generated by programming — tournaments, kids’ classes, drop-in lessons, clinics, and social mixers. Elings has leased out management of the courts to a private tennis pro, he said, who will help supervise the courts so that families feel comfortable dropping off their kids. It will be a community asset used by the entire community, Vickers explained.
But for players used to the courts’ off-the-beaten-track, low-key profile, these changes could well seem jarring. And the prices are decidedly higher. Beginning this January, players saw their annual membership fees increase from $139 a year to $450, or $41 a month. Seniors, however, will be charged $25 a month, but the daily fee will remain $8. But even those discounted rate increases may prove too high for some players, Niles insisted. Vickers countered that the new rates — while admittedly higher — pale in comparison to those charged by private clubs, some of which require as much as $15,000 to join.
Both sides claim they tried to hammer out a compromise, and both accuse the other of scuttling peace talks. Niles has collected nearly 500 signatures on an online petition demanding City Hall repossess the courts, and he claims he has 60 active supporters who will show up at meetings. Thus far, the players haven’t secured much purchase among city councilmembers, even those sympathetic ones who worry the public process leading up to the lease assignment was not all it should have been.
Since the new rates went into effect, former Las Positas players appear to be staying away by the droves — though Vickers insists it’s too soon to say — they’re bad-mouthing Elings Park’s plans throughout Santa Barbara’s tight-knit tennis community, and Niles is talking about hiring an attorney. Whether Vickers’s press conference helps quell the revolt has yet to be seen. Given that Vickers’s plans for Las Positas face about two years’ worth of public hearings at the Architectural Board of Review and the Planning Commission, the stakes are clearly high. And in the meantime, David Niles hasn’t played much tennis. “I’m too upset,” he said.