For the second time this year, the Atlanta City Council has rejected a recommended contract to change the management of the city’s five tennis centers. And this time, the decision is final, meaning the city will have to rebid the service or continue running the centers itself.

The Dec. 8 vote was the latest chapter in a saga pitting longtime operator Universal Tennis Management against newcomer Agape Tennis Academy, which was the recommended bid-winner over a year ago. Much like a similar bid-killing vote in September, UTM complained publicly of an unfair process, and hundreds of residents — many fans of Buckhead’s Bitsy Grant and Chastain Park tennis centers — weighed in at such length the council was forced to delay its vote by a day.

The Bitsy Grant Tennis Center as seen on its website.

The big difference this time is that the recommended Agape contract really is dead. “It was ripped up and thrown in the trash can,” said City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, whose District 8 includes the Buckhead tennis centers, in an interview. He said “the ball is now in the Parks [department’s] courts” on whether to rebid or continue the self-management it has conducted since UTM was contractually forced to depart in August.

Agape and UTM agree that yet another round of contract bidding is likely.

“We look forward to the opportunity to partner with the city of Atlanta in 2021,” said Amy Pazahanick, Agape’s owner and CEO, in an email.

“The most likely scenario is another RFP [request for proposals], which will be the fourth RFP for this particular issue,” said UTM partner Tim Noonan in a phone interview.

But, Matzigkeit said, he and other councilmembers whose districts include tennis centers plan to find a way to select an operator without repeating the same battle.

“Tennis is a game that we enjoy and share with people. This should not be a divisive issue for our city,” Matzigkeit said. While it remains unclear “what that will look like,” he said, the councilmembers will seek a resolution “that will unite the tennis community rather than divide the tennis community.”

Atlanta is not the only local city where tennis center contract bids have become messy battles. Agape and UTM were both unhappy losers in a controversial bidding process in 2017 and 2018 for the Sandy Springs Tennis Center, which included similar appeals by bidders and award rejections from the Sandy Springs City Council. Part of the issue there was the difficulty of quantifying and judging some aspects of tennis operations. Matzkigkeit said the Atlanta situation is teaching a similar lesson.

“It’s so personal. And it’s very hard, because what you’re really buying is a relationship with another person,” Matzkigkeit said of the tennis center contract process. “It’s the coaching aspect that I think people feel the most passion and connection to.”

Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.(Special)

“We’re buying a service, a people service, and how do you measure that?” he continued. “Procurement wants to do everything extremely objective[ly], which is great, but a lot of that is subjective. … So this highlights the difficulty that we have in using a procurement process that is so rigid and quantified to buy something that is not.”

Besides Bitsy Grant at 2125 Northside Drive and Chastain Park on Chastain Park Avenue, the tennis centers also include McGhee, Washington and Sharon E. Lester in Piedmont Park.

Marietta-based UTM — known to many under its operational name Universal Tennis Academy — had operated the centers for over a decade. It operates several other tennis centers in the metro area, including in Brookhaven’s Blackburn Park and at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College campus in Dunwoody.

Decatur-based Agape was recommended as the winner of a previous round of bidding last year, but UTM successfully appealed and won a contract extension through Aug. 11 of this year. In another round of bidding this year for a long-term contract, Agape again won the recommendation from the procurement department.

Pazahanick said that Agape was disappointed in the vote, but “we are still proud that Agape has been selected twice to manage all of the city of Atlanta tennis centers. Our vision for tennis in Atlanta is to create more recreational opportunities and programming for everyone in the city to enjoy. We see tennis as a vehicle to do a lot of good in the city, serve the people, and as a way to build more bridges throughout the five diverse tennis centers and the city as a whole.”

“Tennis can be used to create change and a greater sense of community in the city of Atlanta,” she continued. “The [ancient Greek] word ‘agape’ itself means unconditional love and speaks to the inclusive, welcoming and united environment we will create in the city.”

She said that since September, Agape hired nine tennis professionals, “all of whom are mainstays at the five city centers.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.