By Susan L. Wright
Just when they seemed on the verge of splitting up, the City of Daytona Beach and the Florida Section of the United States Tennis Association decided to give it another three years -- with options for the USTA Florida group to opt out with 90 days notice anytime in the final year.
The City Commission voted unanimously last week to sign the three-year contract for the non-profit USTA/Florida to use the 24-court facility just off LPGA, which was built for $2.5 million.
The three-year contract is a compromise -- the previous norm had been to renew the contract every five years.
The regional USTA group was reported to be planning to pack its bags (or racquets) and move to a larger and more luxurious facility near Orlando. The move would mean becoming part of a huge complex being constructed for the national USTA organization on Lake Nona near Winter Park.
USTA/Florida contends it needs major improvements to the facility here, including adding office space and additional courts, plus a covered pavilion for audiences at tournaments -- to escape to cover in case of rain.
The city has been adamant it doesn't have the money to pay for expanding or improving the facility. Percy Williams, the Daytona Beach director of Leisure Services, said, "The city has a lot of obligations and a small budget."
However, he added they have had conversations with the USTA Florida officials about their requests for expanding the facilities.
Even though they agreed to stick it out for another three years, some observers were convinced that was just a delay. The Orlando facility, which will include more than 100 tennis courts along with other luxuries, won't even be ready for occupation for another couple of years. The new contract was just a holding pattern until they would move. That was the theory.
USTA Florida's executive director Doug Booth said not quite so fast.
Despite the reports in local media, he said, "The bottom line is: no decision has been made by the USTA Florida."
"All we have done is ask for a change" in the situation here, he said. "The office space here has been too small for a few years, really about five years. We cannot keep squeezing into the same space that we had 13 years ago."
They need some kind of covered public space for fans, he said. "Now, if we get a thunderstorm, everyone just has to run for the parking lot to get to their cars."
While the city hasn't seemed willing to consider adding anything to the facility, that doesn't mean his organization is determined to leave, he said. For one thing, he explained, they don't have a specific offer from the national USTA for the complex on Lake Nona.
The lease with Daytona (Beach) is not changed, he said, and indicated that they are open to remaining here if they can still work out some of the issues.
"From Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017, we have the option to give a 90-day notice any time we want out," he explained. "If we moved to Orlando, it would make sense for us to be part of a project with 100 tennis courts. The project has been approved and it's going to happen, but we would have to have a lease with the national organization to be at Lake Nona before we could commit to a move."
"We haven't even been approached. The earliest the project would be ready is the fall of 2016," he said.
At this stage they couldn't even know if signing a lease with the national organization would be less or more expensive than the lease with Daytona Beach, Mr. Booth said.
The USTA Florida board of directors will make the final decision and, according to Rick Vach, the marketing and communications coordinator, the board is due to vote on the issue in September.
"After the first couple of years, we have consistently had 15 or more tournaments here. We have the largest, most impactful amateur tennis championship. When our members come to Daytona Beach, we have to be able to provide a good experience," Mr. Vach said.
He said with the change in the economy since 2001, the city had a lot of struggles to survive financially, including struggling to pay the debt it incurred when it built the facility to get the non-profit group to move from South Florida.
However, the USTA Florida move has added to the area's economy. Mr. Booth said its activities brought in $7 million a year in economic impact. "Compared to NASCAR or Bike Week, that is trivial," he allowed, but it's still not insignificant. And the city officials involved in the original negotiations had expressed interest in attracting a different demographic than the usual NASCAR fan or bikers -- not to replace those, but as an additional group coming to the city.
Mr. Williams said the city is just going to "continue being a good landlord" and see what happens. The economy is very different now than it was in 2001, he pointed out. The city is still recovering financially from the set backs of the past few years.
Mr. Booth denied they have any definite plans to leave. He said he is encouraged by Mr. Williams' statement -- that "if they change their minds, we'll welcome them back."
Of course, that would also depend on what kind of deal the Florida group can get from the national group. Mr. Booth is wisely hedging his bets until he knows what the choice really is.
Meanwhile, other than the final year's options to drop out after just a 90-day notice, the current contract keeps the base rent of about $44,000 and annual event fees of $22,000. The USTA Florida organization will continue to sponsor tournaments and other activities (without benefit of a covered retreat for fans) for the next two to three years.