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Side of Ranch

Will Premier Park tennis courts in Lakewood Ranch be hard on the body?

Lakewood Ranch-area tennis players say Manatee County shouldn't build hard-surface tennis courts.

Leslie Richards and Deb Anderson of Lakewood Ranch say they haven't played a match on hard courts in years. They oppose hard courts being built at Premier Park.
Leslie Richards and Deb Anderson of Lakewood Ranch say they haven't played a match on hard courts in years. They oppose hard courts being built at Premier Park.
Photo by Jay Heater
  • East County
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Bob Richards and some of his tennis buddies were concerned.

They had heard Manatee County is considering to install hard court surfaces at its tennis complex to be built at Premier Park in Lakewood Ranch.

Frankly, that was surprising to Richards and his tennis peers, who are, older.

Richards is 76 and he hangs with other tennis players who have lived a little.

In other words, those players have taken a lifetime of pounding from hard surfaces, and in many cases, tennis courts.

Younger players don't have much of a problem with hard surfaces because, according to older players, they just don't know any better, yet.

"I have been here 12 years and I never have played one minute on a hard court," Richards said. "I've never even been asked to play on a hard court."

Ed Cunningham lives in Country Club East and he notes that the two major tennis organizations in the region — The Suncoast Tennis League for men and the Tri Citiies Tennis League for women — require clubs that join the organizations have soft court surfaces available to use as their home courts. It's that or you can't join.

He said that could mean private courts such as the ones at Lakewood Ranch Country Club or public soft courts such as the ones at Sarasota's Payne Park or G.T. Bray Park.

Cunningham, Richards and their friends have access to private clubs. However, they said they aren't opposing a move toward hard surface courts at Premier for their own interest. They are worried about those who love the sport but don't have the financial wherewithal to join private clubs.

"If you can make a $12,000 deposit and then pay $300-some a month, you can have the full tennis experience," Cunningham said. "Hey, there are tons of soft courts here if you have the money to join a country club. But this is about the awareness we have for other players."

Gene O'Keefe, 76, lives in Greenbrook. He said he used to play quite a bit of tennis on hard courts.

"When you are done — I used to play singles on hard courts — you need the ibuprofen for your hips ... and your ankles ... and your knees. There is just not as much give," he said.

O'Keefe said a contingent of Lakewood Ranch players went to Manatee County to speak with Molly White, the county's director of sports and leisure. 

"She was very kind and gave us the perspective that the hard courts are cheaper from a cost perspective," O'Keefe said. "But she said the plan was to put the hard courts in. She was polite, but I don't believe she was going to entertain the option of soft courts."

Cunningham said he was told Manatee County experienced some maintenance nightmares when they first put the soft courts into G.T, Bray. He said he worries that those problems will stop the county from installing soft courts in the future.

He said if the soft courts are constructed properly, they will be much easier to maintain.

"It all boils down to money," Richards said. "We think they didn't do their due diligence when putting in the courts at G.T. Bray and that was the problem."

River Club's Mark Anderson said he doesn't understand why the county would want to build a tennis complex that the region's major tennis organizations won't use.

The group opposing the hard courts at Premier was meeting to talk about the situation at Sumerfield Park, which has two hard courts.

Those in the group noted it was a beautiful day in the low 80s, and the only action at the courts was one instructor giving a lesson. No one was waiting to play.

Deb Anderson, the wife of Mark Anderson and a former United States Tennis Association Florida board member, said groups such as USTA Florida actually have grants that would support municipalities wanting to build public soft courts. She said approximately 1,800 women are members of the Tri Cities Tennis League and approximately 50% of those are in the 50-80 age group.

She said none of those women in the 50-80 age group would want to play on hard courts.

Deb Anderson said she herself grew up in Colorado playing tennis as a young player on hard courts. Over time, she said, the surface took a toll on her body and led to an artificial knee.

Leslie Richards, the wife of Bob Richards, has had two knee replacements, a condition she said came from playing on hard tennis courts most of her life. She said her days of playing on a hard surface are over.

O'Keefe said, if the county's issue is indeed money, the local tennis players would be better off if Manatee County put in nothing and waited until it had the funds for soft courts.

In August, the East County Observer ran a story with county officials saying the plans for the $42 million aquatic and racket center at Premier Park were only 30% complete. The plans included 10 hard-surface tennis courts, 24 pickleball courts and three pools. 

Manatee County purchased the 127-acre Premier Sports Campus in 2017, along with an adjacent 36 acres to the north. The county added another 75-acre purchase from SMR, adjacent to the north end of the 36 acres, in 2018. Those 75 acres, along with the 36 acres, have been referred to as Premier Park.

While the county will open the Lakewood Ranch Library late this year on the Premier Park property, no sports facilities, such as courts, fields or gyms, have broken ground.

Manatee County Commissioner Ray Turner is on record as saying he wants to get the park project moving forward.

A request was made to Manatee County to speak to a staff member who would address the pros and cons of hard vs. soft tennis courts for this story. The request was denied.

Bill Logan, Manatee County's information outreach manager, said county staff informed him that plans for the complex are still in the conceptual phase.

"Any further decision(s) on inclusion of hard vs. soft courts in this project would be by and through the BOCC so any discussion of what could be proposed by staff would be premature at this point," Logan wrote in an email.

Of course, if you have lived around Manatee County for a decade, you know that lack of transparency has been a huge issue for the county throughout that time. Discussions about these facilities must be out in the open, not put together in some back room.

Then you won't have situations like happened in July 2022 with the aquatics complex, where plans were moved to commissioners for a pool with 25-meter lanes before residents made them aware they couldn't attract major events without 50-meter lanes. 

Could you imagine 10 tennis courts at a $42 million complex not being used? Perhaps it is an item worthy of discussion?



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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