Columbia Association to repair Owen Brown Tennis Club bubble


Columbia tennis players are lobbying the Columbia Association for a permanent indoor tennis facility after the bubble covering five courts at Owen Brown Tennis Club collapsed during last week's snowstorm.

Through an e-mail campaign, tennis players are telling association officials that their indoor playing facilities are now cut in half, and the bubble should be replaced with a permanent structure.

But that is not likely to happen soon. The association plans to repair and re-inflate the bubble within two months.

"The repairs are very minor. We're going to get it up quickly," said Rob Goldman, Columbia Association vice president for sport and fitness. "And CA has a good, usable bubble that has 10 to 15 years of life in it."

Goldman is responding to every e-mail - so far, the association has received more than 40 - telling the players that when the bubble nears the end of its "useful life," the association will facilitate a public discussion about whether it should be replaced with another bubble, a semi-permanent or a permanent facility.

But Gary Kramer, chairman of the Columbia Tennis Committee, an association advisory group, said the Columbia Association's existing courts are nearly at their maximized use, with about 1,700 players using the indoor and outdoor facilities.

"We don't think there's any guarantee that the bubble is going to be able to withstand the weather," Kramer said. "And they have so few facilities for such a large amount of people that they can't afford that kind of risk."

The bubble - which is on the ground at the tennis club near Owen Brown Village Center - was punctured by poles holding up the tennis nets after it slowly deflated Feb. 16.

After the association pays its insurance deductible of $5,000, the insurance company will cover all business losses and repair the canvas-like structure, which cost about $640,000, said Keisha Reynolds, the association's manager of community relations and communications.

Kramer said the tennis committee wanted to look into the possibility of having that $5,000 put toward another facility, but that was not a consideration for the association.

Fabric repairs are scheduled to begin Monday. Workers from the bubble manufacturer, Soper's, in Ontario, Canada, will sew the torn pieces of the bubble - which is built in 10-foot-wide sections - and add another 10-foot-wide layer over the repaired sections to strengthen the damaged areas, Reynolds said.

With the five courts at the Owen Brown club out of commission, four available indoor courts remain - at the association's Athletic Club, in Harper's Choice village.

The association is contacting all players who scheduled times to play at the courts covered by the tennis bubble, and many will be using the courts at the Athletic Club, Reynolds said. The association has also contacted Triumph Health and Fitness in Woodbine to provide court space for the association's junior tennis program and U.S. Tennis Association league matches.

Before erecting the bubble in 1998, the association looked into a number of options to provide indoor tennis courts and concluded that a bubble air structure would be the most financially feasible, Goldman said. A permanent facility would cost about $2 million, while a semipermanent facility - which would have a permanent roof with removable sides - would cost about $1.5 million, he said.

Before the bubble fell, association staff members tried a number of snow-removal methods, Reynolds said.

To melt the snow, the structure's air pressure and heat were turned up to the maximum. Association workers also slid a heavy cable with large knots draped over the bubble back and forth to remove the snow. The lower portion of the chain link fence that encompasses the bubble was also removed, preventing the snow falling from the roof from being compacted between the fence and bubble, Reynolds said.

Goldman said tennis players might be hesitant to play in the bubble after it is erected because it once fell. But he pointed out that it took four hours for it to slowly deflate and fall to the ground, allowing ample warning for players to evacuate.

"God forbid if something like that ever happens again ... they would have time to get out," he said.

Customers who prepaid for tennis and cannot be accommodated will receive a full refund. Information: Brenda DeCesare, general manager of tennis, 410-720-0149.

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