CLEARWATER — They kept playing tennis as sunset turned to dusk. Without any lights to chase the darkness away, the two tennis courts at Clearwater's Coachman Ridge Park got dimmer and dimmer, even as nearby basketball and racquetball courts remained brightly lit.
"I can't see the ball!" one player said.
"I need a miner's hat!" another chimed in.
The eight tennis players were there to make a point. They're unhappy with Clearwater's recent decision to turn off the electric lights at 42 outdoor tennis courts in order to save roughly $20,000 a year in power bills.
A group of tennis players will speak at Thursday's City Council meeting, bringing along a petition asking that the lights be restored.
"I understand the city has to make tough decisions, but this is short-sighted," said Kim Cashman, who owns Advantage Yours, a tennis and running-gear store on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. "The impact on the health and well-being of the community far outweighs the small amount of money it takes to keep the courts lit."
City Manager Bill Horne says the bottom line is that Clearwater can no longer afford to do everything it used to do, and that people will have to get used to that. The city's recreation budget has dropped from $21.5 million to $19.5 million in the last three years.
Horne also notes that the city is still giving people options if they want to play tennis after dark. There's the 15-court McMullen Tennis Complex in the Morningside area, which charges $3 an hour or a monthly membership fee. There's the free Clearwater Beach Recreation Complex, which has three courts, as well as the four-court Bayfront Tennis Complex near City Hall.
But the tennis players, especially on the heavily populated east side of the city, aren't satisfied with those options.
"You can't get a court at McMullen Tennis Complex. It's packed," said Judy Foster, director of the Suncoast Tennis Foundation, a group that works on behalf of amateur community tennis.
She says it's ironic that Clearwater is taking this route because it was named one of the top 10 "best tennis towns" in America by the U.S. Tennis Association this year, and Sports Illustrated named the city a "Sportstown" in 2004.
However, officials say the budget cuts reflect a new reality. City Council members have asked questions about the tennis court lights but haven't shown any inclination to reverse the decision. They've repeatedly said that tough times require tough choices.
City officials have also noted that several of the people who have complained don't even live in Clearwater; they just use the city's facilities.
The tennis players counter that they have a petition signed by 600 Clearwater residents.
"Historically, tennis players are not very vocal. But I know the city has gotten a bunch of e-mails and a lot of information from people wanting them to reconsider this," said Nancy Morgan, a former St. Petersburg Times tennis writer who publishes an online newsletter, thetennisnews.net.
The city hasn't removed the tennis court lights but has cut off power to them at 42 courts scattered all over Clearwater. Players used to be able to push a button to turn on the lights for an hour at a time.
The lights are still on at Clearwater's soccer, football and softball fields, but officials say that leagues and teams that play on those fields pay for those lights.
City Council members have asked why the city can't put coin-operated meters on the lights so tennis players can pay to keep them on. They were told that the meters typically got vandalized.
Some players wish the city would install meters that accept credit cards or swipe cards that can be bought at city recreation centers.
City Council member George Cretekos plans to raise that issue at a council work session Monday before next Thursday's public meeting.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.