HARLEM — The city's Franchise Concession Review Committee has authorized SPORTIME to enter into negotiations with the Randall's Island Sports Foundation to expand the number of courts on the island — but a local politician says the tennis center shouldn't be granted additional space unless neighbors of all income levels are guaranteed access to it.
SPORTIME, a private tennis center that includes an academy run by tennis champion John McEnroe, operates 12 clubs in New York and Long Island. It is seeking to tack on nine additional tennis courts to its newly created 20-court complex on Randall's Island, at a cost of $7 million, officials said.
SPORTIME was granted public parkland under a controversial concession agreement with the city via the Randall's Island Sports Foundation. But the group's initial deal — which was not subjected to any land use review — angered activists who said the $72 to $102 per hour court time fees, as well as up to $6,000 fees for a package of one-hour lessons, are out of the reach of families in Harlem and the South Bronx.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, chairwoman of the council's Parks and Recreation Committee, along with Comptroller John Liu and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, objected to the proposed expansion because they said the tennis center had not released requested information about its finances and what it does to help the poor surrounding communities in East Harlem and the South Bronx.
"A lot of outstanding questions remain regarding what kind of benefit the communities I represent are really deriving from the SPORTIME concession," Mark-Viverito wrote in a letter to the concession review committee.
Mark-Viverito said SPORTIME has made some initial efforts to engage the community. They've hired two people from a job-training group that works with residents in the Johnson Houses in East Harlem. They've also been reaching out to people in East Harlem and the South Bronx.
"If they are serious, I want to see that," Mark-Viverito said.
Mark McEnroe, brother of John McEnroe, and general manager of SPORTIME's Randall's Island site and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, told DNAinfo in 2011 that the group was looking to increase its outreach.
In addition to the two hires, the group has used one of its tennis professionals to reach out to area schools about using the center.
"We are trying to connect with the community better than has been done before," said Mark McEnroe. "In my couple of years here I didn't realize there was a lot of bad blood because many people did not feel they have [a] say."
One of the goals of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy is to get more kids from urban areas playing tennis.
"We hope at some point through our outreach and expertise we can convince the better athletes to play tennis and not just football or basketball," Mark McEnroe said.
But not everyone is convinced. Geoffrey Croft, president of New York City Park Advocates, objects to the use of public parkland for private, for-profit uses.
"They have an existing property on public parkland and they are not addressing the needs of that community. It shows a lack of common sense and sensitivity to go forward with this plan when they are not treating the community properly," Croft said.
Mark McEnroe said that having more courts would help the community.
"If we have more courts we will have that many more hours available," he said. "I understand the skepticism given the history, but we are here for the long haul and we want to be good neighbors."