During a capital budget discussion that grew testy at times, the head of the New Canaan Recreation Department last week defended reinvigorated town-run tennis programs at Mead Park.
Responding to one Parks & Recreation Commission member’s assertion that the clay courts at Mead continue to go largely under-used, Steve Benko said, “We are building our program.”
“If you want to kill my program, then kill it,” Benko told Commissioner Sally Campbell during the appointed body’s Nov. 13 meeting, held at Lapham Community Center. “But my program came back. My tennis grew by almost 60% from last year.”
The comments came as the Commission reviewed the Recreation and Parks Departments’ proposed spending plans for fiscal year 2021. Benko said that the Board of Finance set guidance on the operating side of a 1.5% increase for the Board of Education and a minimum 2% reduction for all other municipal departments.
On the capital side, according to a draft budget proposal reviewed by the Commission, Recreation is looking to request $45,000 to resurface the tennis courts at New Canaan High School, $75,000 for Waveny trail extensions, $25,000 for Kiwanis Park playground fencing and $20,000 for the “Mead Park Tennis Building,” among other expenditures.
The last item refers to replacing a wooden shed at Mead for the tennis court attendant, according to the draft capital documents.
Campbell said during the meeting, “The only big thing I have with the capital budget is, one of the issues we talked about is the tennis courts at Mead Park and whether we need the nine courts. Whether we should repurpose several of the courts. And that would have to be something that would go into the capital budget going forward.”
Chair Rona Siegel said parks officials are talking about commissioning a study to determine whether some of the eight clay courts at Mead Park should be used in a different way, and if so, how.
“I think it’s a really valid question,” Siegel said. “Whether it’s bocce or a basketball court or skatepark, I think it’s something where the discussion should continue.”
She added, “I think you do the study see if … it warrants to have eight [courts dedicated to tennis] or four of them or six of them. And if there is a big pool for something else like bocce or a skatepark or something else out there, then that will be something we look at separately. And looking at Rec programs and looking at what other towns are doing.”
Benko noted that changing the use of a “Har-Tru” or clay court is a “big expense.”
“You can’t repurpose a Har-Tru court for anything else,” he said. “You can’t play any other sports on Har-Tru courts. You have to take it and rip it out.”
One year ago, in reviewing the summer 2018 use of the Mead Park tennis courts, officials reported a sharp decline in passes sold—a change that followed a delayed opening of the courts due to a contractor’s failure. In response, parks officials proposed lower rates for residents and introduction of a new type of permit for non-residents, and also pursued a partnership with the New Canaan Racquet Club for tennis instruction clinics.
Even so, Campbell said, “it’s pretty clear” that overall usage of the courts is low.
While telling Benko that his own rec programs “were robust,” Campbell said that “the actual usage for all the tennis courts hovered about 20%.”
Benko said, “We are trying to get people back into playing.”
“Our use is coming back,” he said.
Given the proposed study, Campbell asked whether the Commission is “looking a year out” to make a decision.
Siegel said yes.
“I think the conversation should continue and that we look and see what happens with tennis and if it improves or declines,” she said.
Campbell, formerly the chair of Parks & Rec, has said she would step down from the Commission at year’s end.