The future of Atlanta’s city tennis centers is a mystery following the City Council’s rejection of a proposed management change that was especially opposed by players at Buckhead’s Bitsy Grant and Chastain Park locations.

The Sept. 8 council vote to essentially kill a recommended contract for the city’s five tennis centers was the latest chapter in a year-long saga pitting longtime operator Universal Tennis Management against newcomer Agape Tennis Academy, both of whom are blasting the process and each other. The city is managing the tennis centers itself for now and it is unclear if or when it will reopen a bidding process for an outside contractor.

The Bitsy Grant Tennis Center as seen on its website.

Decatur-based Agape was recommended to get the contract by the city Department of Procurement over Marietta-based UTM, which had run the centers for over a decade until being required to pull out in August during the bidding process. UTM — known to many under its operational name Universal Tennis Academy — was widely supported by Buckhead residents with yard signs and social media campaigning, some of it stirred by UTM itself.

“Unfortunately, the city is setting a very bad precedent for those who want to do business with the city by ignoring the procurement process and allowing politics to play a role,” said Amy Pazahanick, Agape’s owner and CEO, in an email.

“We don’t believe that the process was managed fairly,” said UTM partner Tim Noonan in a phone interview, adding that he believed the latest bidding process was weighted in his company’s favor yet resulted in UTM being “blown out.”

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, whose District 8 includes the Bitsy Grant and Chastain Park tennis centers, made the successful proposal for the council to kill the proposed contract award to Agape. He said in an interview that the move was best for the city, but would not explain why, adding that he had to be cautious in discussing procurement matters.

Matzigkeit said the council’s decision cannot be reversed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration. That leaves the city with the main choices of continuing to operate the tennis centers itself or starting another bidding process. The administration did not respond to a comment request.

“I don’t think anyone really knows what the next move is,” said Noonan. “I don’t think the city wants to run the tennis centers long-term.”

He added that he has heard talk of possible separate contracts for the various tennis centers. Besides Bitsy Grant at 2125 Northside Drive and Chastain Park on Chastain Park Avenue, the centers also include the McGhee, Washington and Sharon E. Lester in Piedmont Park.

UTM 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.

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.

Losing the city business is a big deal for UTM. Noonan said almost 90 employees worked at the city tennis centers, some of whom lost their jobs permanently as a result of the contract’s end. “I’d say it’s been a monstrous challenge for everyone… A lot of people’s livelihoods are at stake here,” he said.

The management change also has been a disruption for many longtime patrons who developed relationships with UTM’s pros and other staff. “We have these longstanding relationships,” said Noonan. “We’re going to the weddings of our students and we’re teaching the kids of former students. It’s way more than just a business transaction.”

That history of management is part of why UTM had such strong backing in Buckhead neighborhoods. But that advocacy also clouded the bidding process. The city Auditor’s Office later determined that both companies’ bids could have been disqualified for advocacy, though it singled out UTM’s campaigning in particular.

“We have followed and played by the rules,” said Pazahanick, criticizing UTM’s approach. “We have not lobbied our supporters to call and send in emails to sway and influence the process and City Council members.”

Noonan said UTM campaigned for the contract, but he believes the company did not violate a “blackout” period and that the city changed the definitions of improper activity mid-process. “We have encouraged our supporters to exercise their First Amendment rights to be heard. We have even encouraged them to support Agape if they feel that it is warranted!” he said in a written statement. “…If Agape chooses to engage UTM in an ethics ‘food fight,’ we are quite confident that we have enough ‘food’ to face that challenge.”

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. At the time, Noonan complained about that process being unfair.

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