Tennis players have become the second group of paying customers in two years to push actively and with increasing stridency for new, better facilities operated by the Columbia Park and Recreation Association.
Patrons of the association-owned Columbia Tennis Bubble, at the Owen Brown Tennis Club, engaged this month in an e-mail campaign aimed at association administrators and the Columbia Council, which also is the association's board of directors.
The protesters want a permanent, indoor facility to allow year-round play. It is something that has been sought before - and produced the deflatable bubble, which is in its third year of operation.
Gary Kramer, president of the Columbia Tennis Committee, an advisory group to the association that in the past has rarely gone against management positions, is taking a much stronger tack this time.
At the end of last month, Kramer told the Columbia Council during a budget hearing, "It is the fourth quarter with two minutes to play, and tennis cannot get into the game. Someone has put up a brick wall, and 4,000 tennis players are running into it. The council needs to know that outdoor and indoor courts are fully utilized. To get block time [a regular time to play at one facility], it has to be willed to you. How long will [council members] continue to allow access to services to deteriorate?"
Association management has argued for years that its four tennis clubs, at Wilde Lake, Owen Brown, Hobbit's Glen and at the Athletic Club in Harper's Choice village, lose money collectively. A dozen courts are indoors - eight at the bubble, four at the Athletic Club.
But Kramer and his committee argue that with 98,000 tennis visits to association facilities annually, there is no way those facilities can lose money. Kramer challenges the financing mechanism used by association management to allocate money from sales of the Package Plan, its best-selling, family grouping of recreational memberships.
"The tennis allocation is significantly undervalued," he said, noting that 75 percent of Package Plan money goes to fitness centers, with the rest split among golf, tennis and other programs. "Based on the allocation formula, fitness is the only activity that can show a profit. No other activity, including tennis, can ever make a profit."
But Rob Goldman, Columbia Association's vice president for sports and fitness, sticks to the association position, saying he is proud of the array of courts and programs offered, and added: "I know of no permanent, free-standing tennis facility built anywhere in the last 10 years that makes money. That's why bubbles and the like are being built, to keep down expenses."
Kramer and his supporters reply that a properly run, permanent indoor facility could produce as much as $650,000 in revenue, more than enough to justify building it.
Kramer pleaded with the association's 4,000 members to engage in e-mail lobbying.
"We got a very, very strong response," he said. "It was much better than I thought we'd get. [Association management] asked us to stop, in fact."
Goldman said Kramer knows the association agreed last month to do another study of projected use of a tennis facility - seeking to determine demand that would increase revenue if a facility is built.
And with the association's budget for the next two fiscal years still being formulated, Kramer has been told by council members that $20,000 has been penciled in for 2006 for planning a new facility.
Whether that survives remains to be seen, with association leadership concerned over the fate of pending state legislation that would cap the association's annual assessment revenue from Columbia property owners.
Kramer has company in despising the bubble, which he said leaks at times, in addition to occasionally collapsing under heavy snow. It also has to be deflated for repairs.
"There was one day not long ago when you could have hung meat in there. It's cold all the time," said Andrew Washington, a Long Reach village retiree and regular player for 12 years. He e-mailed the association that "as you know ... the bubble is cold, dirty and unhealthy to play tennis."
The tennis players, like rebellious golfers who forced some $650,000 in changes at the association's Hobbit's Glen Golf Club just over a year ago, also are stressing that the association is losing memberships because of crowding and poor conditions.
So crowded are courts at times convenient to most players, wrote Bill Mueller, a former longtime Columbia business executive who lives in western Ellicott City, that an adult team he coaches "ends up having to use high school courts to get appropriate practice."
Mueller said the association's "revenue over time will be significantly impacted if this trend is allowed to continue."
Diane Shawver of Ellicott City, who calls herself "a tennis addict," wrote that "I have been trying to get my block of court time for years and have not been able to do so. I'm thinking of dropping my membership. The block times I do belong to are overcrowded, resulting in play every other week or once a month. I want to be able to play three or four times a week."
Shawver also said she is taking a daughter to Pikesville for lessons because an insufficient amount of practice time is available on Columbia indoor courts. "It just seems as if [the Columbia Association] doesn't seem interesting in grooming younger players."