Like private investors before them, Howard County officials this week said they will not build the large Troy Park tennis complex in Elkridge that local boosters of the sport have long proposed.
"It's not going to be a project that the taxpayers of Howard County are going to fund," County Executive Ken Ulman said.
The decision follows the release of a feasibility study by the Maryland Stadium Authority last week that found the construction of the proposed $44 million project — which included 30 courts and an 8,000-seat stadium — would not be a smart or financially feasible investment.
The decision frees the county to move forward with its plans to build Troy Hill Regional Park, officials said, which had previously stalled pending a decision on the tennis complex.
"I'm just not going to wait anymore on delivering phase one of a great park," Ulman said.
Work on the park, which will include recreational sports fields and a community center, will begin as early as this summer, and the park could be open to the public as early as the spring of 2014, according to county Recreation and Parks Director John Byrd.
"We're getting ready to move forward with the grading and the master plan we have in place for the park — minus the tennis center," Byrd said.
The park is located near the intersection of Interstate 95 and Route 100.
The study, prepared at Ulman's request and funded with $75,000 in state, county and private money, was conducted by Florida-based Crossroads Consulting Services.
It found tennis courts are needed in the area and that the complex would provide some economic and quality-of-life benefits to the county and its residents.
But it also found the complex's ability to attract major tournaments would not be guaranteed, the cost of operating the facility as a public amenity would be high, and its economic benefits would be diminished by the county's lack of nearby hotels.
"Although market demand exists for the proposed new Troy Park tennis complex, the direct financial benefits do not appear sufficient to support on-going financial operations or debt service on the project," the study found.
The idea that the county might help build the facility was first raised after members of the Howard County Tennis Patrons, Inc., a local nonprofit organization founded in 2004, failed to secure private funding, Ulman said.
Ulman said he "never envisioned" fully funding the project with county dollars, but he requested the study because he wanted "more information" on the project's viability, in part because the site is so accessible and would be the perfect location for a regional attraction.
Tennis needs unmet
The complex was envisioned by supporters as a potential boon to both the sport and the local economy, and the patrons group already developed detailed plans for what it might look like.
Now, those supporters are reviewing their plans.
Art Tollick, president of the group, said he is pleased the study highlights the need for tennis courts in the area, but has qualms with how it balanced potential costs and revenues.
The study considered the project purely as a public-sector endeavor, and "left out a lot of potential income streams that we thought would be there for a private developer," Tollick said, such as selling naming rights to the complex or creating membership fees for those who use it regularly.
Tollick said it will be a "missed opportunity" if the county dismisses the idea of building a tennis facility altogether.
While the Columbia Association and private clubs provide some indoor courts, most of the county is completely underserved, he said.
Lynn Coddington, executive director of USTA Maryland, agreed, saying such a facility is needed in the region.
"Howard County has one of the largest USTA adult-level programs in the state, and per capita it's probably the largest, and it is constrained by the number of courts available," Coddington said.
Both Tollick and Coddington said such a venue would be just as important for local adult and youth leagues, which are growing.
There are outdoor courts at local high schools, but those aren't always available and don't have lights for adults to play in the evening or at night, Coddington said.
The USTA is also rolling out a program called "10 and Under Tennis," its largest youth initiative ever, to get more young kids into the sport, and that will also drive up demand for courts, Coddington said.
"Howard County will have inadequate courts moving forward to hopefully deal with the younger players coming onto the scene," she said.
13 acres put aside
Byrd said that when work on the Troy Hill park begins, the entire park site will be graded and prepared for recreational development. But after those initial preparations, for which more than $1.5 million in capital funding has been allocated, about 13 acres will be put aside for a special project of some sort that will take advantage of the site's regional accessibility.
The study said the county may want to consider building "a smaller, first-class outdoor competitive court with relative limited spectator seating that could accommodate tournament activity as well as other uses." Ulman said tennis courts could still be incorporated into the Troy Hill park.
Tollick and Coddington said there are cheaper options for a tennis venue that could still attract tournaments.
"You can build a tournament court or a show court that can accommodate a smaller tournament, and add seating to it that then accommodates a professional event," Coddington said.
There are other possibilities for the site as well, Ulman said.
The county has joined with the D.C. United professional soccer team to co-fund a second, $20,000 study looking at the feasibility of building a soccer training facility for the team at the site, Ulman said, and there has also been talk of building a regional youth sports facility.
Regardless of what fills the gap, Troy Hill is going to be a "fabulous regional park," Ulman said.