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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2006
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Bubble to give tennis fans more than hot air

By Chris Paschenko
chris@decaturdaily.com· 340-2442

Starting this week, Decatur adds tennis to its list of indoor sporting attractions.

Tommy Wade, the city’s tennis director, said the Decatur Community Tennis Association raised about $18,000 for the purchase and delivery of a bubble dome. It will cover two of the 18 courts at the Jimmy Johns Tennis Center.

The nearly 5-ton contraption inflates to a height of 38 feet, Wade said, high enough to handle most errant lob shots. The bubble, which uses fans to remain inflated, will be heated to protect winter hackers from the elements.

“If you leave the doors open, it will deflate in seven minutes,” Wade said.

How, exactly, the bubble dome will become a Decatur fixture, complementing the city’s growing recreational tourism venues, is another story.

Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap said Decatur Utilities installed a natural gas line at the bubble dome site to power backup generators to keep the bubble inflated if the complex loses electricity.

Wade, who coached tennis at University of Kentucky and The University of Alabama, bargained the bubble away from its former home at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.

“The guy in charge of the program, Tom Daglis, who is a good friend of mine and is in line to become the president of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association in two years, called one day and asked if I wanted to buy the bubble,” Wade said.

Wade asked Daglis what he thought the bubble and supporting equipment was worth.

“He said, ‘I have no idea. $60,000, $100,000 $200,000,’ ” Wade said. “So I offered him $12,000. I’d seen it and had been in it three times, but I didn’t know I was going to buy it.”

Big Rapids deal

Tony Saunders, a bubble dome expert in Detroit, told Wade that Decatur landed a deal.

“He said, ‘You stole this,’ ” Wade said. “He said, ‘The lights alone are worth $12,000.’ ”

Why did Ferris State want to rid the university of the bubble? A 2004 operational efficiencies report compiled by the university said officials were planning to decommission the bubble.

The report suggested finding a possible market for the bubble, saying it had a minimal service life, and that selling it would be less expensive than the cost of disposal.

The report said the university would save $23,000 annually on its utility bill, because the bubble requires constant airflow to stay inflated and experiences tremendous heat loss. Wade said the university had another motive to sell the bubble.

“The president at Ferris State had put $427,000 in it and there had been no salary increases,” Wade said. “The president spending all that money apparently made the deans mad, and when the president left it was obvious the deans wanted to get rid of the bubble.”

Wade said the best aspect of the deal was that Decatur residents didn’t pay for the bubble.

“The fundraising committee of Dr. and Mrs. John Wagner, Clint Shelton, Jack Moores, Cecil Chaney and Jennifer Denton raised $18,000,” Wade said. “We had to pay Tony to take it down and expenses for going up there and insurance fees, paying for a crane rental and bubble storage.”

Wade said the city would have particulars like when the bubble would be available for the general public worked out before it opens sometime this week.

The city has scheduled seven tennis tournaments, Wade said.

Other indoor sporting activities provided by the city include ice hockey, swimming and basketball.

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