Miami-Dade commission to take up thorny expansion plan for Crandon Park Tennis Center

When organizers of the Sony Open tennis tournament received overwhelming voter support a year ago to renovate the Crandon Park Tennis Center, they may have thought the hardest part was over.

But what came next has hardly been easy.

Nearly 73 percent of Miami-Dade County voters approved the $50 million makeover last November for the popular tournament held every year on Key Biscayne and known as tennis’ “fifth Grand Slam.”

Since then, tournament organizers have been drafting agreements with the county to bring the project to fruition — including one that, at the county’s request, would turn over year-round management of the publicly owned tennis center to the private company that runs the tournament. The tennis center would still be open to the public.

The project has become entangled in lawsuits, and tournament backers are grappling with opposition from local, amateur tennis players who say the overhaul would push them out of their beloved tennis center because it would no longer have any clay courts.

The simmering disputes will get a public airing at a meeting Tuesday when the County Commission is scheduled to hold a hearing and vote to move the renovation along.

“Our intention was never to upset anybody — our intention was to secure this event here at a world-class level for the future,” said Adam Barrett, senior vice president of IMG, which runs the tournament. “I believe what we’re doing is good for the county.”

Last year’s ballot question asked voters to approve expanding the tennis center and extending the county’s lease with the tournament, which would pay for the upgrades with tournament dollars such as ticket fees and parking surcharges. Miami-Dade would have to issue bonds to be paid off with tournament revenues, leaving the county off the hook for the debt.

The county might have to chip in for environmental improvements if testing reveals problems at the tennis center site, which was built on top of a county landfill. The tournament would also help pay for any remediation.

The renovations would be significant, including adding tens of thousands of square feet to the tennis center’s main stadium and building permanent grandstands for three more courts that now require temporary tournament bleachers.

Backers of the Sony Open, formerly known as the Sony Ericsson Open, pitched the improvements as necessary to keep the tournament competitive with other big-time tennis venues.

They drew a key opponent: Bruce Matheson. A member of the pioneering family that donated the Crandon Park land to the county, Matheson contended the referendum language was misleading and violated the county charter because it asked voters about a plan that was more conceptual than specific.

He sued the county after the election, arguing that the ballot question was insufficient. The county asked the court to dismiss the complaint.

Separately, the tournament also sued the county and Matheson, saying a crucial next step for the project — amending a Crandon Park master plan — was illegal, and the tournament should be exempt from the process because voters had already approved it.

Neither case was decided. The court stayed Matheson’s lawsuit, saying it was not ripe for consideration until there are actual agreements approved by county commissioners, and dismissed the tournament’s lawsuit until an agreement is place. The tournament has said it plans to refile the complaint.

The first of the agreements to go before commissioners, amending the master plan the tournament had hoped to sidestep, will receive a public hearing Tuesday. Those changes would then go to a four-member committee that governs future plans for the park.

Matheson is one of the committee members. His family negotiated that as part of a 1993 settlement after the Mathesons sued the county when it planned to build the tennis center’s main stadium. That settlement says no additional permanent structures will be built — an issue the court would have to reconsider with the tournament’s likely lawsuit.

“The deal was one stadium. Period,” Matheson said.

The other agreements may also get a commission vote Tuesday, though because they were placed late on the meeting agenda, they could also be postponed.

One of the contracts extends the tournament’s lease, set to expire in nine years, to a total of 30 years with two optional, 10-year extensions. Another outlines the construction to expand the tennis center facilities, which would begin next April.

A third agreement makes the private company that runs the tournament for IMG, named International Players Championship, or IPC, the year-round manager of the tennis center. Turning over the management of the tennis center was not part of the plan voters approved. Tournament organizers did not seek the change, said Gene Stearns, the tournament’s attorney.

But it’s a way for the county to save about $850,000 a year — and to avoid growing maintenance costs that would likely stem from the new tennis center facilities. The county would still have to set aside $1 million a year for 14 years in a reserve fund for capital improvements and repairs of the existing structures.

Neither the construction nor the management contracts would be put out to competitive bids.

The management change has worried frequent tennis center visitors, who say they’re happy with the way the county runs the park and fear the agreement would set a precedent for more public-private park deals.

But above all, amateur tennis players who prefer to play on softer clay courts than on hard courts oppose the tournament’s plan to eliminate the tennis center’s six clay courts and two grass courts.

Having only hard courts has always been part of the tournament’s proposal. Organizers say they don’t have enough courts as it is; every year they have some players practice at the Key Colony condominium’s 12 courts during the tournament, Barrett said.

But the tournament didn’t play up the change, and amateur players like Rose Haney of Key Biscayne, who voted for last year’s ballot question, feel duped.

“I found out through the grapevine,” said Haney, who plays a couple of times a week. “We’re getting kicked out of the park.”

An online petition on the website against doing away with the courts had more than 380 signatures as of Saturday.

The county wants players to use clay courts available at the nearby Crandon Park golf course. Those are managed by the nonprofit Key Biscayne Tennis Association, which Haney said gives preference to its members and does not maintain the courts as well as the tennis center does.

County administrators said they’re looking into perhaps lighting more of the golf course courts. That would accommodate nearly all of the tennis center players, Parks Director Jack Kardys said, citing a department analysis.

In the end, though, not everyone will be happy, the tournament’s Barrett acknowledged.

“I don’t think that you could ever do a project this large and not have somebody who doesn’t like it,” he said.