Until recently, the tennis courts at Mead Park looked a little shabby -- for New Canaan standards.
Fans of tennis know what a rarity it is to have public courts made of the green clay surface Har-Tru. For the most part, clay courts can be found only in the poshest of country clubs, so when tennis enthusiast Sharon Stevenson moved to New Canaan about six years ago and saw the beautiful Har-Tru courts at Mead Park, she didn't feel it necessary to join a club.
The courts' surroundings, however, could use an aesthetic boost.
"All the equipment was from 1970s," Stevenson said. "Fences were falling down and rusted, with gigantic holes in them."
Especially in the last 10 years, since the town has moved to well water, the corrosion of the fences has increased, Recreation Director Steve Benko said. When the clay courts are cleaned using sprayed water, or when sprinklers for the grass would get on the fences, the high amounts of iron in the well water would speed up the oxidizing process.
The Recreation Department had included upgrading the aesthetics of the courts, which are owned and operated by the town, on its list of chores to do, but it was not a top priority, Benko said.
So Stevenson went about fixing the place up. She started a 170(c)1 nonprofit organization, Friends of Mead Park Tennis, along with her friend and fellow tennis enthusiast, Mary Singh, to raise money for replacement fences, benches and net posts. A 170(c)1 is a nonprofit that raises money for a public good or service and acts as a charitable contribution to the government. All work was done in cooperation with the Recreation and Public Works departments.
Fundraising efforts began in 2009, and four years, several tournaments, silent auctions, corporate sponsors and a full $140,000 later, the three locations that comprise the eight courts at Mead Park are ringed by sturdy and attractive weather-resistant fencing and handsome composite benches, a serious upgrade from the broken, gray benches that preceded them.
The town contributed more than $50,000 over two budget years to the process, and officials sat down with Stevenson to review bids and logistics. During construction in 2011, the contractor, Quality Fence of Peekskill, N.Y., unexpectedly hit concrete below the surface of the courts because the new fences go down further into the ground than the old ones. Neither Stevenson nor the town is sure why there was concrete there, but the snag led to higher-than-expected costs on labor, and the project had to be paused. Stevenson applied for more grants, winning one from the United States Tennis Association, and the work restarted in July 2012, concluding in November.
Benko said the fences and net posts dated from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. While the courts are public, they are only opened and maintained from May through the end of October, with fall hours after August. Town residents may sign up for a membership with Mead Park Tennis, which costs $90 a year for adults, and only those who've signed up can reserve courts and play.
On June 1, several town officials and donors gathered for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the courts, including First Selectman Robert Mallozzi, who gave a short speech.
"The renovations are beautiful. The fences are beautiful. The whole grounds of the tennis area look so nice, it was a fantastic effort," he said last week. "(Stevenson) just moved to town in 2009, saw a need, and came to us with a dynamite plan and to get grant money. (She) drove this thing so beautifully."
For her part, Stevenson also is very happy with how the project turned out.
"It was super fun and a big success, a gigantic accomplishment," Stevenson said. "A few times I thought the project would never happen. This used to be the gem of New Canaan, and we've restored it to how it was in the beginning."
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