Miami-Dade County commissioners approved on Tuesday a $50 million expansion to the Crandon Park Tennis Center, saying the upgrades by the Sony Open tournament would benefit a majority of the community.
For amateur tennis players worried that the renovation would eliminate six clay courts, the county vowed to find a way to accommodate most of those players at nearby courts that would also get a facelift.
“This project does not cost the county a penny,” said Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes Key Biscayne.
The commission go-ahead does not mean construction is imminent. The tennis center makeover would still need to be approved by a committee that oversees the future of Crandon Park. Sony Open organizers, who want to break ground on the project in April, plan to challenge that procedural step in court.
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Last year, nearly 73 percent of voters authorized the county to move forward with the expansion, which would be funded by tournament revenues such as parking fees and ticket surcharges.
Among the renovations would be enlarging the footprint of the tennis center’s main stadium and building three new permanent grandstands. Each year, the tournament brings in temporary bleachers to make room for fans of the tournament, known as professional tennis’ “fifth Grand Slam.”
To make room for more hard courts used by the tournament, six clay courts and two grass courts would go away. That brought a contingent of local tennis players to County Hall to protest.
“If you take away our tennis courts — we only have about six good courts — we’ll have nowhere to play,” Robert Hobson said.
Parks Director Jack Kardys said nine clay courts at the Crandon Park golf course, about a third of a mile away from the tennis center, could absorb most of the demand from the lost courts. The county plans to light all those courts, convert a tenth court into a clay surface and extend the hours of operation to match the more popular tennis center courts.
Players had complained the golf course courts, managed by the nonprofit Key Biscayne Tennis Association, were subpar compared to the ones at the tennis center.
Also opposing the expansion plan was Bruce Matheson, whose family donated the Crandon Park land to the county in exchange for construction of the bridge to Key Biscayne. In 1993, after he sued over construction of the tennis center’s main stadium, the county entered into a settlement that prohibits any new permanent structures.
“The county cannot accept this proposal because it violates the promises made by the county to the Matheson family in the settlement agreement,” Matheson told commissioners.
The tennis tournament plans to sue over that settlement, which gave Matheson a seat on the four-member Crandon Park master plan committee that must approve the expansion plan.
Representatives of the tournament, owned by the global sports management giant IMG and run by the local International Players Championship firm, or IPC, have said the upgrades are necessary to continue attracting big-name tennis players and more than 300,000 fans a year.
As part of several agreements negotiated with the county, IPC would take over the year-round management of the county-owned tennis center to save the Miami-Dade parks department about $850,000 a year. Commissioners amended that contract to limit it to a five-year term with five-year renewal options, instead of the proposed 30 years.
Commissioners spent about three hours listening to the public and discussing the proposal before voting for it 9-2.
Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan, Jean Monestime, Javier Souto and Suarez voted in favor. Commissioners Bruno Barreiro and Juan C. Zapata voted against. Vice-Chairwoman Lynda Bell and Commissioner Dennis Moss were absent.
Barreiro said he wanted Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration to commit to replacing the six clay courts. He also agreed with players who argued the tennis tournament had not advertised before last year’s election that the clay courts would be eliminated.
Zapata had several concerns, including that the contracts between the county and the tennis tournament were a late addition to Tuesday’s agenda. Commissioners had the power to postpone votes on those contracts, but only three said they would support a delay.