HARLEM — Amid heated criticism from advocates who say a $19 million Randall's Island tennis center affiliated with tennis great John McEnroe failed to provide enough access for neighboring communities, the group in charge of the center has vowed to increase its outreach efforts.
Mark McEnroe, brother of tennis champion John McEnroe, and general manager of SPORTIME's Randall's island site and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, said this week that his organization plans to make a more concerted effort to reach out to East Harlem in 2012.
"Could we do more? Yes," Mark McEnroe said during an interview overlooking the facility's tennis courts, where coaches give private lessons to children.
"Part of John's image is to divorce the sport from the all-white-clothes, country club image ... We can improve outreach and make sure people in the surrounding communities are aware of what is here and what is available. We need to let people know that if you get here, you can play," he said.
"We feel we are living up to our obligations technically, but we'd like to max it out."
McEnroe said SPORTIME plans to hire a community outreach coordinator within the next month, and added that it founded the nonprofit Johnny Mac Tennis Project to raise money to provide more scholarships and increase outreach to East Harlem and the South Bronx, the two neighborhoods that border Randall's Island.
SPORTIME is also looking to form new partnerships with area schools, he said.
The group, which operates 12 clubs in New York and Long Island, including the Hamptons, was allowed to use the public parkland on Randall's Island under a controversial concession agreement with the city via the Randall's Island Sports Foundation. Previously, decrepit tennis courts existed on the island.
There is also still much resentment in the community over the fact that construction of the tennis center did not go through the city's land-use review process.
The organization is currently seeking permission to add nine additional tennis courts on what is now a parking lot at a cost of almost $7 million, to be paid by SPORTIME.
Numerous community groups and three elected officials — Comptroller John Liu, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito — have expressed reservations about the expansion, citing concerns about the amount of community access to the facility, and a lack of financial and usage data regarding the 20 courts SPORTIME already operates.
Activists say the $72 to $102 per hour court time fees, as well as up to $6,000 fees for a package of one-hour lessons, all but excluded families in Harlem and the South Bronx from sending their kids there.
Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, called the 370 hours of scholarship time SPORTIME offered "embarrassing," considering the $12 million in gross revenues it made at the site last year.
McEnroe said he feels SPORTIME is being painted unfairly, because the organization is following all the rules laid out in its contract with the city and offers more benefits to children and the average tennis court user than they are being given credit for.
SPORTIME has paid a little more than $2 million in licensing fees to the Randall's Island Sports Foundation since opening in July 2009.
The number of scholarship hours cited is misleading because it doesn't include the more than 20,000 hours of court time per year that the facility makes available to park permit holders under its contract, said McEnroe. From May 1 to the day before Columbus Day, half of the facilities' 20 courts are designated for holders of Parks Department permits, he added.
During July and August, 20 schools have access to the courts and are provided balls by SPORTIME, McEnroe noted.
The new courts would generate at least $500,000 in additional licensing fees, and four courts will be available for park permit holders from May until October under the contract terms they are seeking, he explained. The new courts also include additional improvements to the island, McEnroe said. The funds generated will be used by the Randall's Island Sports Foundation to maintain the island.
Children from local schools and the Randall's Islands Sports Foundation's programs have also benefited from using the court for free. SPORTIME serves almost 100 children per week through partnerships with Harlem RBI's DREAM Charter School in East Harlem and Hyde School in Hunts Point. SPORTIME also provides free transportation to the facility.
The company invested $18 million of its own money to build the facility and only made net income of $306,580 off of $12 million in revenue last year, but lost $1.54 million during its first year of operation, McEnroe said. The center also provides 60 to 70 jobs depending on the season. Approximately six employees have lived in East Harlem.
Mark McEnroe said that the decision to bypass the land use review process was the city's. The application for nine new courts will go through the full land-use review process.
Elected officials along with park and neighborhood advocates responded with a mix of cautious optimism and outright suspicion at the group's timing and motives.
"It remains to be seen what they are committing to, but what the community has clearly stated is that it is not benefiting from a private business that took away public parkland," said Croft. "If they are now saying they want to increase public access with free programming, that's a good thing."
Mark-Viverito said she's not convinced that SPORTIME's efforts are "genuine," and added that she said she wants financial details about the group's current operation and planned expansion. She said there have to be concrete measures in place to ensure that the neighboring communities benefit from the site.
"My real concern is they disrespect our communty, slap our community around, and then think we will accept crumbs," said the councilwoman.
"They have know for years about our concerns regarding community engagement. So for them to come now when they want something, I don't buy that arugument. I need to see some changes," Mark-Viverito added. "I recommend this idea get shelved until there is a demonstration of good faith."
Marina Ortiz, founder of the neighborhood advocacy group East Harlem Preservation, also questioned McEnroe's and SPORTIME's motives.
"They are doing this because they have to, not because they want to, not because they have consideration for our community," Ortiz said. "If they had consideration for our community, we wouldn't be here asking these questions and we'd have answers already."
Despite the skepticism, Mark McEnroe said he hopes the group's actions will help change people's minds about SPORTIME.
"It's frustrating to feel we are getting criticized for trying to do something good," he said. "But we need to figure out a way to do more, and we are ready to step it up."