As the boys tennis coach at Ottumwa High School, Mark Hanson has visited many different cities throughout the state for meets, and he usually comes back with the same discouragement.
"I just walk away from those places shaking my head. I'm like, 'Wow,'" he told the Ottumwa City Council during the first meting of the year Tuesday at City Hall. "And I'm taking my kids back to Ottumwa to practice on these courts and play our meets on these courts."
Hanson, as well as other officials from the Ottumwa Community School District and Friends of Ottumwa's Parks, lamented the deteriorating conditions of Dan Staggs Courts in Ottumwa Park. They gave a presentation to the council on the status of the courts, which have become a safety hazard and have not allowed OHS to host any of its bigger meets or postseason events. Some courts have cracks the width of a shoe.
As a result of the court conditions, Ottumwa now has to play its home meets at the country club, and its boys invitational is now played in Fairfield because of the safety concerns. Tennis has become a growing sport, Hanson said, with about 80 kids representing the boys and girls teams.
In the wake of the presentation, the school district and Friends of Ottumwa's Parks asked the city to consider a making $750,000 donation of American Rescue Plan funding to match the same amount the school district is prepared to offer to cover most of an estimated $2 million project. The scope would include 12 new courts, complete with new fencing, nets, windscreens, an ADA restroom and concessions area.
The rest of the expense, some $600,000, would be done through fundraising and potential grants, said Blaire Siems, the fundraising chair of Friends of Ottumwa's Parks, who was optimistic there was enough interest to raise the rest of the funds.
"I am confident the city will see a return on investment through the increased ability to host tournaments," she said. "We currently can't host tournaments as large as something like the Babe Ruth World Series for tennis. But if we can build a state-of-the-art facility, it will grant us the ability to hopefully do just that."
Council member Russ Hull was curious about a timeline for the courts, and the groups said the goal is to begin construction this fall and have them completed by the spring of 2023.
There are currently six courts that make up Dan Staggs Courts, and another four next to Bridge View Center, all in the same deteriorating condition. They weren't built properly, said Bob Kramer, the president of the parks organization, as he read an email chain between himself and the late Staggs's son, Jeff.
"They built them wrong to start with and dad accepted them, but was disappointed," said Kramer, reading a response from Jeff Staggs.
Kramer said the United States Tennis Association recommends four to eight inches of asphalt to build new courts, while the current courts are only about two to three inches. Harsh Midwest weather conditions have played a significant role in the courts' deterioration.
"That's why they crack so easily, and it's a danger," Kramer said.
Ottumwa superintended Michael McGrory piggybacked off the comments from Kramer and Hanson, ensuring new courts will be built the right way.
"This is a collaboration that we can do with the city. This is a high need for not only the district, but for the community. That's what's really exciting to me," he said. "These will be built in a manner where very little maintenance will be required, and that's a huge plus because they'll last a long time.
"As a district, we need to do better for our tennis kids," McGrory said. "The country club has been a blessing for us because it gives us a little bit of an option to hold some events, but not many."
The city is already in the process of a design study to see how best to use its park space, and new tennis courts are part of that plan. However, until there is more direction given about placement of the courts and other amenities in the parks, the location is still up in the air, city administrator Philip Rath said.
"The group (has been) open to seeing where that study takes us," he said. "So as soon as the plan and location is finalized, we'd be ready to put out bids and get those constructed yet in that timeframe, if this a desire for the city."
Hanson encouraged the city to support the project, not only for his team, but also as an economic development driver.
"Our kids deserve everything the Johnston kids get, the Waukee kids get, Iowa City West, or Burlington for Fairfield. Heck, even when Bloomfield gets," he said.
"We've got to do something this time. We really do," Hanson said. "This is our time."