The company managing the city of Atlanta’s five tennis centers, including the ones at two Buckhead parks, and its supporters fear they will not be able to renew its contract because another company owned by a woman with ties to prominent Democrats may win the new contract. In late February it filed an official protest with the city as a result.

Universal Tennis Management, which has managed the city’s tennis centers since 2010, had its nine-year contract with the city expire May 11 but got a 90-day extension to Aug. 11 while undergoing the protest/appeal process with the city in an effort to win the new contract.

Universal manages the Chastain Park, Bitsy Grant, Sharon Lester, Washington Park and Joseph McGhee tennis centers at Chastain, Atlanta Memorial, Piedmont, Washington and White parks, respectively. It also manages the tennis centers at Blackburn Park, Briarlake Baptist Church and Georgia State University’s Clarkston and Dunwoody campuses, all in DeKalb County, and the James Creek Tennis Center in Cumming.

Universal’s history

Founded in 2009, Universal is based at the Chastain Park Tennis Center and started as a spinoff from Universal Tennis Academy, which was founded in 1996. The new Atlanta contract is for 15 years, split into three five-year increments, but if the city is pleased with the management of its facilities once the first five-year period is over, the company can sign for the remainder of the overall contract length.

Tim Noonan co-founded Universal with David Drew and today is one of six partners with the company. He said Agape Tennis Academy, which is based at the DeKalb Tennis Center, which it manages, was recommended by the city of Atlanta’s review board in the procurement department for the new contract.

“Basically we’re trying to get the procurement department and the city of Atlanta legal department to take a closer look at the process,” Noonan said. “It’s basically like we lost the first round of a 10-round fight or we lost the first set of a tennis match.”

Universal’s supporters living near Chastain Park have put signs in their yards the color and shape of tennis balls stating “Keep UTA.” Also, supporters of Universal have started a petition posted to the website asking the city council to keep Universal as its tennis center management provider. As of May 9, it had received 2,684 signatures, with a goal of 5,000.

“My husband and I have been playing tennis out of Piedmont Park – it’s become an important part of our lives and the staff have a lot to do with that,” Kristy Griggs wrote in the comments section below the petition. “Please do not replace them and consider that they are members of a community as well as professionals. The Sharon Lester Tennis Center would not be the same without them.”

A separate petition started by Universal tennis students requesting the same thing has received 534 signatures, about halfway to its goal of 1,000.

“I am a part of UTA and it has impacted me in such a positive way that I would give my life to help us fight for Bitsy Grant,” Elle Williams wrote in the comments below that petition.

A spokesman with the city of Atlanta’s parks and recreation department did not provide information or comments on the bid process by the Neighbor’s deadline. But Noonan said Agape and Universal were the only companies to bid on the Atlanta tennis centers contract.

Agape’s history

Amy Pazahanick, Agape’s owner, said she believes the company, which is managing no other facilities beside the DeKalb Tennis Center, offers excellent programming.

“I think that our programs really represent programming for every different type of person in the community more overall,” she said. “We have programs for disadvantaged children and youth, special-needs groups, junior players and adults. We have programs more evenly dispersed.

“I also feel strongly we’re the most progressive group. We’re young, motivated, innovated. We have more advanced systems and programming to run things more efficiently. We’re more modern with social media and marketing. More progressive and young. We align more with the city of Atlanta and its vision.”

According to its website, Agape was founded in 2012 and has won three awards: being voted the Community Outreach Organization of the Year and being named 10-and-Under Program of the Year and Director of the Year by the Georgia Professional Tennis Association.

Pazahanick also posted on Facebook photos of her with two prominent Democrats: District 5 U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, and 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. But she said that meeting had nothing to do with the Atlanta tennis centers contract.

“I personally admire John Lewis and Stacey Abrams and have always been a student of civil rights,” Pazahanick said. “Having an opportunity to be photographed with them and meet them is something I was excited about. I only met them one time at an event that had nothing to do with tennis. It’s certainly a stretch that a single meeting with them would have anything to do with the city tennis center contract process.”

Noonan said he doesn’t think Pazahanick is using her political connections to get the city’s new tennis centers contract.

“I know there are (connections), but I don’t know how much difference it’s making in the overall bid. To me the biggest thing that our experience," he said. "We feel this contract is being bought and not earned through achievement and experience. That’s really what this is all about. We believe they offered more money than we did. Everything we’ve done for the past 23 years was weighted at 10% of the final (request for proposals) score, which is crazy for a service contract, which is what this business is.”

Universal’s success

Noonan said Universal has a track record of success. The city of Atlanta was running its tennis facilities prior to Universal signing its current contract. Noonan said the city was “running them at a great financial loss and the centers were on the verge of being closed. When we came in Washington, McGhee and Piedmont would have closed in a couple of months, and Bitsy Grant and Chastain Park might have stayed open for another year, year and a half.”

Universal previously managed the DeKalb Tennis Center before Agape won that contract after DeKalb County tripled the rent in its RFP process when it was rebid, forcing Universal to decline to bid on it then due to the high price, Noonan said.

“By all measurable business metrics we’re a superior company,” Noonan said. “Revenues fell 52% at the DeKalb Tennis Center the first year (Pazahanick) took over from us. If you’re not going to do a better job than the company that managed it prior to you, what’s the point?

“Our success is based on a lot of factors, but world-class programming and customer service are the biggest ones. Every facility we’ve gone into, we’ve exceeded the previous management team’s participation and revenue numbers the very first year. When we look for opportunities to expand, the first question we ask is: ‘Can we do better than what’s going on right now? Can we do better than current management?’ If we can’t, what’s the point?”

Matzigkeit mum

District 8 Atlanta City Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, whose district includes the Chastain and Bitsy Grant tennis centers, did not return a phone message seeking comment on the contract issue. But he addressed it in his email newsletter May 2, saying he “must stay out of the city selection process, for now,” but adding residents can contact him about the issue and speak at council meetings once the issue advances to the council for a vote.

“Contracts of this sort are handled by Atlanta’s procurement office,” he said. “The city’s procurement process has been the subject of a great deal of attention, including an ongoing federal investigation that has led to some convictions.

“We must respect and protect this process, which I intend to do. Once the procurement office has finished its work and made a recommendation, there is an appeals process losing bidders may pursue.”

Noonan said if Universal lost the Atlanta tennis centers’ contract, it would mean a loss of just over 50% of its revenue, “so it would hurt.”

“That being said, we would be fine because we know what we’re doing and our business model will work anywhere we go,” he said. “But to be honest the fighting we’re doing is because of the relationships we have with the people we work with at the facilities. We are fighting for the families and the kids at (Atlanta’s) centers.”

Noonan said in a May 6 interview Universal has an appeal meeting with the procurement department May 14 at 9:30 a.m. to “appeal some of the things we feel were not handled properly.”

The company has hired Tom Mars, an attorney who has had success representing dozens of college football players, including former Georgia Bulldog quarterback Justin Fields, seeking to circumvent the NCAA’s eligibility rule that requires players who transfer to sit out a year, by filing a hardship appeal.

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