When Roswell City Councilman Marcelo Zapata first heard about a plan to build a massive tennis center in a city park, he balked.
There was no market analysis. No business plan. No traffic impact study. And no input from residents.
Still, city officials moved forward. Thursday, they announced plans to begin formal negotiations with a family foundation interested in building a $50 million facility, with 135 tennis courts, on 60 acres of Big Creek Park. The project, they said, would be a catalyst for economic development.
Some might have expected that capitulation to appease opponents of the tennis center, which would have supplanted miles of hiking and biking trails. Yet many residents remain angry that the process could have gotten as far as it did without any effort to get the public’s opinion.
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“Mayor (Lori) Henry needs to know that we will NOT accept this kind of last-minute, back-door dealing in our community,” one commenter on NextDoor said on Monday, a day after Henry issued a statement saying she would not move forward with an agreement between the city and the Krause Foundation without getting community input.
“We must keep the fight going. If they tried to do this as a backdoor once, they will try it again,” said another.
Hundreds also showed up at a Monday council meeting to ensure their message was heard. Some chanted “Save Big Creek” and held protest signs outside city hall.
Zapata said he began questioning the process a month ago, as soon as council members were made aware of the proposal. He said the tennis center plan was discussed behind closed doors, and very little analysis had been done. Zapata said he didn’t receive satisfactory answers to his questions from Henry or other council members. “From my viewpoint, the process was not the best one,” he said.
“I’m happy that the community came out and spoke up loud,” Zapata said. “I hope we all learn from this experience. … I think we’re going to do things better in the future.”
Other than Zapata, no council member responded to requests for comments. The mayor’s office said Henry’s only comment would be the written statement she issued.
In it, Henry said Vernon Krause of the Krause Foundation approached the mayor’s office with an offer to invest in a tennis center in honor of his daughter, Angela.
City officials believed the tennis center would spark others to invest in the east side, a desire expressed by residents in that area during last year’s economic development forums, the mayor said.
But after the uproar, those plans were halted.
“We want you to know we hear you again, so we will not be moving forward with it,” Henry wrote. “We will hold a town hall meeting for further input from residents on the possibility and location of a tennis center in Roswell.”
Councilwoman Marie Willsey wrote on Facebook that council members “have much to learn from this experience,” while Councilman Matt Judy used the same forum to say the city needs to “refine the way in which we share information with our citizens when possible.”
And Councilman Mike Palermo wrote in a Facebook post that he was excited for further town hall meetings to discuss the tennis center, “the process that should have occurred first.”
“We could have done better,” Councilman Sean Groer posted online. “With the best of intentions, and in our excitement about the scope and nature of an investment of this size, we could have delivered this message much better, with a more refined (Memorandum of Understanding), and a description of the ensuing steps required for the project to begin. We always intended for this to be the first step of a multi step process that allowed multiple touchpoints with the public. I understand why it appeared differently to Roswell’s residents.”
The city’s biggest problem is communication, said Shawn Brunner, who owns the Fresh Bikes shop near Big Creek Park. Roswell never announced the tennis center plan on its own, he said, leaving it to the media to spread the word. That made for bad optics, and led to more resentment in the community, he said. Though Brunner said the decision not to vote on an agreement Monday was a victory, he thinks more work has to be done to ensure the park is safe for the long-term.
“Ultimately, it’s the public’s land,” he said. “I think the public should have a say.”
Other residents said they were disappointed in their representatives.
“We feel that they were underhanded,” said Chris Rooker, who lives a mile and a half from the park. “It was sneaky. … Everybody is in total shock.”
Jay Aiken, a past president of the Roswell Alpharetta Mountain Bike Organization, said it appeared that the project had been in the works — without any public input — “for a while.”
“I think it could have been handled a lot better, and a lot less confrontational,” he said.
Staff writer Mitchell Northam contributed to this story.