How The Mandan Tennis Center Went From Unlikely Dream to Reality

6 mins read

Early Hurdles: Community Keeps the Project Alive

In September of 2021, Tracy Porter was disappointed. The project he had spent hundreds of hours on-an indoor tennis and pickleball facility designed for more access to play for the Bismarck-Mandan community-had been canned. Denied. Shot down. Put on the chopping block. This project, which had gone from pie-in-the-sky, if-we-had-a-magic-genie levels of possibility in 2019-2020 to holy-buckets-we-might-actually-get- it-done levels of possibility in 2021, had lost its momentum.

After creating a business model and finance structure that would place the facility’s financial responsibility on sponsorships, user fees, and private funding, and after making proposals that had support from the Mandan Park District and Mandan School District, one problem: there was nowhere to put it. The facility’s location was crucial because it needed to be easily accessible for both Bismarck and Mandan residents, but no unoccupied Park District property fit the description. User groups of other possible locations met Tracy’s requests with polite messages of, “Thanks, but no.” So it was done-a good try, a good idea, a valiant effort-but it was done. 

Enter Bob Kupper. The former car dealership entrepreneur and community-minded property owner had a meeting scheduled with Cole Higlin, Mandan Park District Executive Director, to discuss the Park District’s recent purchase of land for the construction of a parking lot just East of the Starion Sports Complex (SSC). As the neighboring landowner, the Park District would be selling some of what they had originally purchased to Kupper because they did not need a large amount for the new parking lot. 

Offhandedly, Cole mentioned that Tracy Porter had this tennis and pickleball project that was going to fizzle out because they couldn’t find a location, and Bob didn’t think twice: he donated two acres of land back to the Park District—enough to build the Mandan Tennis Center—attached to the SSC parking lot. Just like that, the project was back.

Foundations: Inspired to Impact the Community

To understand Tracy’s motivation to coordinate this project at all is to understand his entire background and professional career. A lifelong resident of Mandan, Tracy has always aimed to better the community in whatever manner was available to him at the time. As a young adult, Tracy coached youth basketball and baseball teams at a variety of ages and abilities. In 1998, he was elected to the Mandan Park Board and served on it for 16 years. During that time, he was able to advocate for a variety of projects that enhanced the community.

He also was able to observe how large wellness facility projects were proposed, and importantly, how difficult it was to agree to construct a facility when the Park District (and therefore the community-at-large) was footing the entire bill. As working professionals, both Tracy and his wife Jane spent over 30 years immersed in the finances of the cooperative organizations (Tracy at NISC and Jane at NDAREC) for which they worked, and a foundational principle of cooperatives is Concern for Community. Recently, Tracy was a recipient of the University of Mary Alumni Harold Schafer Leadership Award, which places at its heart the importance of Servant Leadership, particularly to one’s community and the people in it.

So it’s been community, community, and community from the beginning. That’s all great, one might say, but what does it have to do with tennis and pickleball? Well, they’re secondary, but they’re related. Tracy picked up tennis in high school and had some success with it, but he saw it as a supplement to his other sports—not something on which he felt he should spend a lot of time. Fast forward, and Tracy and Jane’s children, Jacey and Erik, took an interest in tennis at an early age.

As a family, the Porters became immersed in the tennis community and the people that comprised it. Tracy and Jane became fans, coaches, and volunteers, and both Jacey and Erik continued their playing careers through high school and into college, both have continued their involvement as adults; Jacey is the Head Mandan Middle School girls’ tennis coach, and Erik is the Assistant Coach at Mandan High School and the University of Mary. In fact, in 2022, the family’s involvement in the game grew so much that the Porter Family was named the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section Family of the Year.

Nevertheless, season after season, tournament after tournament, and conversation after conversation, two things became clear to them: tennis is a fun game to play, and the community ought to have more fun opportunities to play it. When pickleball became the fastest-growing sport in America several years ago, it was like icing on the cake; now, there was another great opportunity to play an accessible game with family and friends.

(From Left to Right) Back Row: Erik Porter, Rebecca Elliott, Jane Porter, Tracy Porter, Jacey (Porter) Wanner. Jacob Wanner Front Row: Vienna Wanner. Cosette Wanner, Delia Wanner Deborah Kates

Blueprint: Making the Details Possible

Even with the most community-minded intentions, however, for this project to work, it needed to be realistic. Tracy knew going in that such a specialized facility, one that only provided one category of recreation (racquet sports), wouldn’t interest the Park District since there are so many other user groups who need facilities, too. As a result, Tracy created the following business plan: he and his family would create Mandan Tennis Center LLC, a nonprofit that would manage and operate the facility; the Mandan Park District would own the facility and lease it to Mandan Tennis Center LLC; and the monthly lease payment from the Mandan Tennis Center to the Park District would be equal to the amount of the monthly payment on the Park District’s construction loan. Admittedly, agreeing to this took quite a bit of forward-thinking from Park District leadership. They understood the motivations for this project and worked with Tracy to craft a plan that would allow the facility to launch without placing undue strain on the Park District.

From there, the conversation got practical. The engineering and design firm Kadrmas, Lee, and Jackson (KLJ) won the design bid; Northwest Contracting won the construction bid with Electric Systems and Central Mechanical as the primary subcontractors; and a company out of Minneapolis called Yeadon won the bid for supplying the facility’s air-supported dome. These groups organized and coordinated their projects so efficiently that, six months after breaking ground, the facility was open to the public. At a time when supply chain issues were affecting several aspects of the construction process, this was truly an impressive feat.

The teams settled on a 41,600 sq. ft. facility that would contain 6 indoor tennis courts and up to 10 indoor pickleball courts.

During the construction process, a question came up several times: “Why the bubble?” It’s pretty straightforward. It was by far the least expensive construction material, and it was by far the fastest method of construction available. In fact, the team from Yeadon inflated the entire dome in an afternoon.

Erik Porter (left) and Tracy Porter (right) accepting the 2022 USTA Northern 'Family of the Year' Award.

When it came time to furnish the facility, it was very important to Tracy and Co. that the tennis center set itself apart from other facilities like it in the region. This led to investments in electronic scoreboards on each court, cameras and speakers on each court, and a unique Wall of Champions display in the lobby that features North Dakota Boys’ and Girls’ high school West Region Champions and local State Champions.

Starting the Rally: One Year in the Books

The Mandan Tennis Center is approaching its 1st anniversary of opening to the public. In that time, it’s been able to open its doors to a wide variety of people. It has hosted collegiate tennis matches between the University of Mary, Minnesota State University Moorhead, the University of Sioux Falls, and Augustana University. It has also hosted ND West Region high school tournaments for boys’ and girls’ tennis. It helped host three competitive summer tennis tournaments that saw entries from all over the upper Midwest. It has hosted 3 local tennis and pickleball tournaments with over 400 combined entrants. And, crucially, it’s welcomed people from all over Bismarck-Mandan for its youth and adult programming. 

It’s one thing to note the year’s highlights, though, and it’s another to emphasize the consistency. A typical week at the Mandan Tennis Center incorporates a little bit of everything: there’s evening drop-in pickleball one night, and there’s an Introduction to Pickleball class one night and a Pickleball league on another. There are youth tennis lessons after school and a tennis league for competitive players on Sundays. There’s a budding Saturday tennis group that mixes adults and high schoolers, and there are pickleball groups that play in the mornings anytime as early as 5:30 a.m.. There’s even an evening of Smash Tennis, which is a hybrid game that Tracy and Erik created using a variety of equipment and rules from other games. Together, they’re working on creating an ecosystem of fun offerings for people of all ages and abilities. 

Zooming Out: Perspective and Plans

Nearly two years to the day after Cole Higlin’s fateful conversation with Bob Kupper, the Mandan Tennis Center hosted the 2023 Boys’ High School West Region Tennis Tournament. It was the first time Mandan had ever hosted the boys’ tournament. Over 250 players and spectators came to the facility to support their friends, family, and teammates.

But for Tracy Porter and his family, it’s not about the big events. They’re great, certainly, and the facility will continue to host them, but the real joy-giver of the facility is simply people playing. Their goals are simple: introduce and re-introduce kids and adults to tennis and pickleball; encourage kids and adults to participate in lessons, leagues, and local tournaments; and encourage good wellness habits through the exercise that tennis and pickleball provide. Above all, they want to share and promote these games that are great for families and great for friends.

The Mandan Tennis Center is open to anyone for personal or group play—on their schedule, their plans, and their fun.

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