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Emanuel cuts ribbon on $16.9M tennis center on Robert Taylor site

Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presided Saturday over a ceremonial “ribbon-cutting” for a city-subsidized project with potential to provide recreational opportunities for 4,000 inner-city students and bolster the mayor’s standing among African-American voters whose support he desperately needs to win a third term.

The $16.9 million XS Tennis Village built by the nation’s largest minority tennis organization on a site at 5256 to 5338 S. State that once housed the CHA’s Robert Taylor Homes has actually been open for months.

But the mayor’s office calls that a “soft opening” and says the ribbon-cutting made it official.

“It’s fantastic to drive by it and just look in the windows and see all of the people who are coming in to play tennis or practice tennis. It’s a great asset in the community,” said local Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

“It’s been a catalyst for some other development. Although it’s been small, we see new commercial development going on a little further south on State. We have some new houses being built in the community. It’s a destination location so, I’m pleased with the impact it’s having so far and I expect that impact to grow as more people become aware of its location.”

The tennis mega-center could not have been built — at a cost 72 percent higher than the original estimate of $9.8 million —without plenty of city help.

That includes CHA land, a $2.9 million tax-increment-financing subsidy, $7 million in New Markets Tax Credits, private loans, foundation grants and a last-minute fundraising push from Emanuel.

The state-of-the-art center includes 27 indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a 10,000-square-foot gym and a 5,000 square-foot academic center that includes training space and classrooms.

XS Tennis already provides free tennis for 2,000 Chicago Public School students through its portable, in-school Tennis XSpress program. The center will double the number of schools and participants to 4,000 students and pave the way for XS Tennis to extend $300,000 in scholarship-based instruction to Chicago residents and CPS students.

Chicagoan Taylor Townsend, who made a surprise splash at the 2014 French Open, is a graduate of the program.

Dowell noted that Kamau Murray, founder and president of XS Tennis, “came into the community offering scholarships.” In fact, that’s one of the demands made on Murray in exchange for building the center on CHA land.

“With Sloane Stephens, Venus and Serena Williams, and all of the up-and-coming African-American tennis players, our kids are seeing more role models. And they have a better interest in tennis,” Dowell said.

“When you look at the Whitney Young [H.S.] tennis team that won the state title, two of the girls who were on that team—Mackenzie and Madison Beckham — live in this community. They’re from the 3rd Ward. They’re trained by Kamau.”

Three years ago, the aldmeran joined Emanuel and Murray for a groundbreaking ceremony where she sang the mayor’s praises for getting the ambitious project over the fundraising finish line.

“I saw it firsthand. I couldn’t believe it — how much money this man [Emanuel] raised in an hour. In an hour for this development,” said Dowell, who went to college on a basketball scholarship and knows the power of sports to “transform the lives” of inner-city kids.

Emanuel acknowledged on that day he played a role in filling the final fundraising gap.

“We were at a lunch that Les Coney [executive vice president of Mesirow Financial, who’s on the board of XS Tennis] put on. And we were, what, $300,000 short. So, I just told him, `Lock the doors. Nobody’s leaving until we find $300,000 and, the good news is, we found $300,000 in that room,” Emanuel said.

Then the mayor turned the spotlight on Corinne Salter and the perfect score she got on the Whitney Young entrance exam after spending five days a week at an XS Tennis program she called her “second home.”

“The reason the city wanted to support this was not only the economic development and the sense of bringing a community together and giving kids a chance at a brighter future and scholarships,” Emanuel said then.

“Don’t assume the scholarships that come from XS Tennis are gonna be tennis scholarships. When you just heard somebody who’s a rising 7th grader talk about their grades, the scholarships could be in any field. There’s tutoring that goes on and assistance in education. So the kids that go to XS Tennis are gonna be champions on the court and in the classroom. Not just on the court.”