State puts money into tennis stadium as lawmakers complain

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) " Tennis stars arriving for next week's Connecticut Open will be greeted with a newly renovated $1.5 million players' center, funded by the state over the objections of lawmakers who view the spending as misplaced in tough economic times.

The facility includes new locker rooms, a lounge, a gym and training and medical space, some of which had been housed in trailers outside the stadium or at nearby Yale University. It's the first major renovation to the Connecticut Tennis Center since the 15,000-seat stadium opened in 1991.

Daniela Hantuchova, a former Top 5 player from Slovakia, became the first to use the facility on Tuesday as she prepared for qualifying matches this week.

"Obviously you want to go to tournaments where you feel comfortable and you have everything you need," she said.

The state bought the struggling Women's Tennis Association tournament, the final women's event before the U.S. Open, for $618,000 three years ago to prevent it from moving to North Carolina. Since then, the state Bond Commission has approved spending about $3.5 million on improvements, including a new heating and cooling system, better concessions and signage. A new $1.1 million press center is planned for next year, and the tournament hopes to persuade the state to pay for a permanent kitchen and luxury boxes, now housed in temporary structures.

The state, which ended the last fiscal year with a budget deficit of about $300 million after numerous rounds of budget cuts, also gives the tournament a $300,000 annual operating subsidy.

That has prompted criticism, including from Republican state Sen. Joe Markley, who said spending money on a facility that hosts one major event a year is ludicrous.

"State politicians and these economic development bureaucrats are mesmerized by shiny objects," he said. "A tennis tournament, in the great scheme of economic drivers, is an insignificant thing."

But the tournament's director, Anne Worcester, said the event pumps $10 million into the local economy each year. She said it also gives the New Haven area international exposure, which helps boost tourism.

The state's budget director, Ben Barnes, said the infrastructure improvements are needed to help the tournament become self-sufficient.

"If you're going to own a building and operate a tennis tournament, you've got to be prepared to make some improvements and some investment in that tournament," Barnes said.

The state subsidy was $600,000 in 2014. It was $400,000 a year ago, and it continues to drop in large part because of the state spending. Since the instillation of insulation and the new heating and cooling system last year, the stadium's annual electric bill has dropped from $200,000 to $130,000.

There are plans to use the building year round for youth tournaments, concerts and other functions, officials said. The stadium even will serve as the visitors' locker room for some football games at the adjacent Yale Bowl.

The executive director of the Capital Region Development Authority, Michael Freimuth, said the state hopes to recoup about $1 million within three years in utility and rental costs.

But Republican state Rep. Christopher Davis, a commission member who voted against the spending, said he'd like to see the tournament become entirely private, with sponsors picking up what are now state costs.

"Is the core mission of the state of Connecticut is to be owning and overseeing a tennis center?" he said. "Or is this money that could be more wisely used on public infrastructure?"

Worcester said the tournament has about 65 private sponsorship deals, including a title sponsorship by Farmington-based United Technologies Corp. She said the improvements to the stadium will help attract more private investment.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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