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Fish Foundation up for talks on Riverside tennis partnership


Vero Beach’s fledgling efforts to get its Recreation Department’s facilities to pay for themselves – or at least offset operational and maintenance costs through public-private collaboration – might’ve hooked a big one.

The Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation is exploring the benefits of entering into a partnership with the city to refurbish and reconfigure the Riverside Park Racquet Complex so that the island facility could be used for fund-raising events, including tennis tournaments and exhibitions, and youth activities.

“The city would prefer to not spend money on recreation, particularly improving and maintaining facilities, and we’re looking for a home,” foundation president Tom Fish said last week. “So maybe this is a way we can work together and help each other.

“We’re still very early in the process, and the talks we’ve had were very preliminary,” he added. “But this is definitely something we want to look at.”

“We’re really excited about the Fish Foundation,” said Rob Slezak, the city’s recreation director. “I know all the wonderful things the foundation does for at-risk kids, and this is chance for us to work together to give them the home they’re looking for.

“The opportunity is there.”

Fish said if the parties decide to move forward and successfully negotiate an agreement, the foundation might bring to Vero Beach a second professional tennis tournament, probably a minor-league level women’s hard-court event in the fall.

The $25,000 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championship – a lower-tier men’s clay-court event played in Vero Beach since 1995 – is scheduled for April 29 to May 5 at The Boulevard Tennis Club.

Fish’s tournament co-director Randy Walker said he already has begun communicating with the United States Tennis Association about the possibility of bringing a women’s competition to town.

The foundation also could bring touring-pro exhibitions, top-tier junior tournaments and early-season college matches to the Riverside complex, Walker said.

“It would be really tough for us to host a tournament during our busy season because it would be very difficult to get the hotel rooms we’d need,” Walker said. “We’re better off being on the fringe of the season, which is the case with our men’s tournament.”

Fish said he was initially approached last summer by Dick Yemm, the city’s recreation commission chairman, who arranged a meeting with Slezak in the fall.

The foundation’s board of directors plans to discuss next month the pros and cons of partnering with the city, Fish said, as well as the financial feasibility of embarking on a costly renovation project and how to raise the funds needed to do so.

“The tournament is coming up, and that’s our priority now,” Fish said. “Once we get through that, we’ll hold a meeting devoted solely to the Riverside Park proposal. We have a lot of ideas that we need to talk about.”

Slezak said the City Council is aware of his conversations with Fish, whose son, Mardy, grew up in Vero Beach and went on to become one of the world’s top-10 players.

If the foundation partners with the city, Fish said the Riverside complex would need a substantial facelift – resurfaced courts, improved lighting, new fencing and a reconfigured layout to allow for a center court surrounded by grassy mounds that would form a natural amphitheater.

“I’m not sure we’d want an actual stadium, but we could create something similar to what you see in golf at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass,” Fish said. “It would be something that would fit in with the natural setting of the park.”

He said the foundation also could use the adjacent racquetball courts for offices or other indoor space.

The money needed to pay for the renovations would not come from the foundation’s coffers, Fish said. Instead, the board would appoint a task force or committee to form a separate limited liability company to raise and oversee the funds.

As for paying for naming rights – something the city is seeking for other parks and recreational facilities – Fish said the foundation’s investment in the facility would cover the cost of re-branding the place, possibly as the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Center.

Fish said the public would still be permitted to use the courts, adding, “They’d just have a nice place to play.”

It was two years ago that a then-new City Council told Slezak to explore ways his department could generate revenues to help cover the costs of maintaining and operating its facilities.

On Jan. 1, the city began allowing people to reserve and rent the covered pavilions at Jaycee, Humiston and South Beach parks, charging non-residents more to do so. The Recreation Department also has raised fees for using its facilities.

“This gets me excited,” Slezak said, “because it’s made us think outside the box.”