Norwich ― What is now a drab concrete slab on Mohegan Road is set to be alive with bouncing tennis balls next summer when the rebuilt Armstrong tennis courts reopen.
Tennis fans have complained to the city council for years about the decay and closure of the old clay courts across from the city’s recreation department.
“They’ve become so overgrown you could practically mow them down,” said Norwich Free Academy sporting director Roy Wentworth, a member of the city’s ad hoc tennis committee. Wentworth recalled going to watch NFA tennis games there as a teacher years ago.
The City Council set up the Tennis Committee on February 1, 2020 to assess public interest and “develop strategies for obtaining funding to improve tennis facilities in Norwich”, the council resolution states.
Committee chairman Fred Phelps said the group had hoped to secure donations from local businesses and tennis fans. But a month into the effort, COVID-19 has thrown businesses and residents into financial uncertainty.
The group raised more than $19,000, including two individual donations of $5,000, Phelps said. That money will remain dedicated to Armstrong Tennis Courts, Phelps said. But that wouldn’t affect the cost of the project, which ended up totaling $479,779.
Phelps credited former Norwich director of recreation Cheryl Hancin-Preston and former director of social services Lee-Ann Gomes for standing up for the tennis courts when the COVID-19 recovery money arrived.
The city had invested $118,866 in the city budget for the project. Next, Norwich received $28 million in federal grants from the American Rescue Plan Act, with outdoor recreation a permitted use. The city spent $360,912 on Armstrong Tennis Courts.
The committee and officials from the city’s public works department selected a more expensive but more durable post-tensioned concrete design.
Jean-Paul Laguerre, a civil engineer with the public works department, explained that post-tensioning construction involves installing a network of wires below the surface. After the concrete was poured and placed, the wires were tightened to add tension to the concrete, making the courts stronger, Laguerre said.
“It helps prevent cracking,” Laguerre said.
Phelps said post-tensioned concrete is warranted for 20 years, standard concrete typically cracks within four to five years.
The four new courts will open in late June or July, but additional funding will be needed to add LED lights and fix the “awful” dirt parking lot, Phelps said. Laguerre said the city had an estimate of $49,000 for the lights.
There was some controversy over the reduction of the original six courts to four new courts. But after removing the original clay courts and seeding the area to grass, the city installed a playground where the other two courts were.
Phelps said the courts could be expanded in the future.
Construction will be halted for the winter. The concrete slab is complete and the fence posts surrounding the courts are being installed. Painting and sealing must wait until spring because that work will require 60 days of at least 50 degrees, Phelps said.
The courts will open too late for the NFA boys’ and girls’ spring tennis seasons, but Wentworth said he’s excited about the future home of the Wildcats. The NFA did not have a home tennis court during his five-year tenure as athletic director.
NFA teams share grounds at Norwich Technical High School, Jenkins Park on Mechanic Street and John B. Stanton School on New London Turnpike.
“I’m just grateful to have something that belongs to us,” Wentworth said. “I’m grateful there’s movement on this, not just for the NFA but as a resident of Norwich. We like to see more provided for our children and adults too. Tennis is relatively cheap to play compared to to certain other sports.
The Armstrong courts will not be open for pickleball, the popular sport of paddleball that often adapts tennis courts.
Norwich Human Services, which oversees both recreation and the Rose City senior center, has received a grant from the Edward and Mary Lord Foundation to build pickleball courts near the senior center just down the road Armstrong lands.