El Paso, Texas, is not a city basking in excess. In 1999, it was one of 15 cities nationwide designated by the Clinton administration as an urban empowerment zone, meaning it became eligible to receive federal dollars to help stimulate the local economy. "We struggle keeping libraries open," said long-time resident Christy Balsiger. "We struggle getting the bulletproof vests for our policemen. Our city parks barely have any grass -- if at all -- because it's so expensive to water them."
With that knowledge, El Paso might not be the kind of city where you would expect to find a brand new 14-court public tennis center. Nevertheless, the El Paso Youth Tennis Center opened last May "to provide economically disadvantaged youth the opportunity to receive free tennis instruction and to provide scholarship avenues for a college education through tennis achievements."
"What we're talking about," says tennis director Larry Haugness, "is getting kids -- all kinds of kids: low-income kids, high-income kids, no-income kids -- playing tennis."
Says El Paso Parks and Recreation Director Charles Nutter, "It has taken the pressure off us to get (tennis) programming."
The primary concern for the city of El Paso at this point is just funneling youngsters to the tennis center. During the summer, that included operating the Northeast Youth Trolley, run by the transportation department, to link the El Paso Youth Tennis Center with the YMCA and the Boys' and Girls' Club.
In the El Paso Youth Tennis Center, the city of El Paso finds itself with an urban jewel. This is a credit to the El Paso Tennis Development Foundation, which, by the time the full project is completed, will have raised $1.5 million so that it might "provide academic opportunities to El Paso area youth, with an emphasis on the disadvantaged." The 14 tennis courts and administration building that opened last May represent only Phase I, a $600,000 project, of the three-phase plan.
"This facility is already the caliber to put on major tournaments," Nutter says. "As it continues, you'll be able to have just about any major tennis tournament you could imagine. With a. city like El Paso, that's pretty unique. We don't have many world-class facilities. But we're definitely getting a world-class tennis center."
Balsiger, as president of the 11-member El Paso Tennis Development Foundation board, has led the fund-raising drive that made the El Paso Youth Tennis Center possible. The foundation has obtained money through grants, a commemorative brick campaign, sales of the book "400 Years in El Paso, annual membership sales and original ideas such as the El Paso Family Preview Day, a benefit for which the development foundation teamed with a new Carmike Cinema during the theater's grand opening. …