by Jim Boyle

Editor

Some dreams never come true, but some dreamers never quit.

That’s true of Randy Ronning and Curt Johnson, two pillars in the Elk River tennis community that hatched a dream in the early 1990s to build an indoor tennis center to provide for year-round development of tennis players of all ages to learn, enjoy and compete at all levels, including the highest level in their favorite sport and those looking to stay active in retirement.

The dream preceded Elk River’s rise in prominence in high school tennis circles, which reached a summit of its own in 2012 when the Elk River boys team won the AA state championship — the first school outside the beltway of the metro where the indoor tennis opportunities were plentiful. Coaches Ronning and Johnson made due with their knowledge of the sport and a commitment and dedication to the program that got extended every time the next promising tennis player or players showed signs of greatness.

In their spare time, the high school teacher (Ronning) and mail carrier for the Elk River Post Office (Johnson) spent most of the next three decades trying to make that dream a reality. Their efforts could be described as a snowball they tossed like a gauntlet onto a blanket of wet snow and pushed it up the side of a snow-covered mountainside only for it to melt when they nearly reached the summit. The pair scaled at least five or six mountains in Elk River, Otsego and Rogers while picking up a couple more dreamers along the way  — one a business man and the other a teacher — before they finally realized their dream this past month when they opened the Rogers Tennis Club.

It will be a boon to the Elk River program, and, quite frankly, to every other tennis program in the region from Rogers and St. Michael-Albertville to Monticello and Buffalo.

There will be an open house for the Rogers Tennis Club from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 20.

The center is already open for business and taking reservations and memberships. Among the visitors have been 100-200 tennis players who have been familiar with “the dream,” and couldn’t wait to make their way to the promised land.

“The main thing about this place is people really enjoy themselves,” Ronning said. “We want this facility to be a place where people can hang out, love being here and feel welcome.”

The facility from the outside looks like an old-fashioned ice-box-type arena, but inside is a slice of heaven for tennis aficionados. There are five courts to the left and another two to the right that can be used for pickle ball as well. Upstairs, there’s a common area for people to hang out and see all the action below.

There was a question after the courts were painted about who would hit the first ball, but Johnson settled that with an informal gathering of the four main forces behind the center and their families.

Johnson, Ronning, Del Bauers and Scott Larsen were assembled. Each grabbed a ball, together counted to three and all hit at the same time while others took video and pictures of the momentous occasion.

The 28 years leading up to that day were suddenly worth every ounce of energy the four exerted.

“That was a special moment,” Ronning said. “It was a long time coming. The longest for me and Curt, but it would never have happened without all of us.”

The group gathered at the Rogers Tennis Center on Aug. 21 to share their journey with the Star News and to tell the world about what they have created.

“At the end of the day, we’re four coaches that have a soft spot for growing tennis,” said Larsen, a Buffalo High School teacher who is on leave and working as the director of tennis for the Rogers Tennis Center. “Any one of us could have walked away from coaching, but then you meet the next person who you want to stick with. You want to develop them.

“In the four of us, you have four court junkies who love being on the court and want to grow the game of tennis.”

The early days

Johnson, a graduate of Elk River High School, played tennis in high school in the 80s but the program was not doing very well in the late 1980s. He decided he would volunteer to help coach at the junior high level.

By 1992, both Johnson and Ronning were giving tennis lessons.

“We just realized we needed year-round tennis if we were going to be able compete with the big schools,” Ronning said, referencing Anoka, Coon Rapids and other metropolitan schools.

“We were getting throttled,” Johnson said.

This was back in the day when the McDonald’s was about the extent of development on Highway 169. Elk River drove to the Daytona Golf Club, which at the time was the nearest indoor tennis facility, but the pair of tennis coaches realized it was never going to satisfy their thirst for more court time.

“We were hoping for more,” Ronning said.

Their first target was John Bailey, who served as the chairman of the board for Cretex, an Elk River company that was founded by the Bailey family. He was a wealthy man who had a single court in his backyard that was the home for Elk River tennis when the program was started in 1959, Johnson said.

“We still used it when I was in high school,” Johnson added. “There were two courts by the arena and Bailey’s single court. Two of our five-point matches were played there.”

Johnson played with Bailey’s nephew Tim Bailey, and they decided to approach him. They asked him if he’d like to build a club, and they would run it.

“We were making great progress,” Johnson said. “We thought we found a property but then he passed away and his son didn’t want to carry on.”

Then in 1995 they saw an opportunity present itself. Dick Taylor, a tennis player and the father of one of the high school players, knew of their interest and said he’d like to build a center.

“He owned a company, he was selling it to a Japanese firm and believed with that sale he was going to finance the club himself,” Johnson said.

Ronning recalled how he and Curt met at Taylor’s house for about a year .

“We were calling clubs around the country to see what you would have to do,” Ronning said. “We were well into it.”

It was at one of those meetings that Bauers walked in. Ronning had been giving Bauers tennis lessons, and somehow he heard from another businessman in the community about this push for a tennis club.

Bauers became a third force in the effort, but the foreign company Taylor was working with on a deal fell through. With no sale, there was no tennis facility.

“That was strike two,” Johnson said.

Bauers was the man who brought up the idea of resuming efforts a number of years later.

“It was the three of us then,” Ronning said. “We started looking at properties.”

One that came into view was a dome that Spectrum High School had in its possession and expressed a willingness to donate. It was seven-court bubble dome they owned that had been donated to them by Northwest Tennis Club.

“It was sitting in a warehouse, and they would give it to us for nothing,” Johnson recalled. “We would have to build the structure to set it on, which would cost about $1 million.

“We had that all lined up,” Johnson said.

Spectrum’s leadership, however, had a change of heart. They would need considerable control over the courts, removing the economic feasibility.

“So that one fell through,” Johnson said.

The group also worked with the Elk River YMCA for a time.

“They had given us architectural drawings of what they envisioned it to be,” Johnson said of their five-court proposal.

Then Minneapolis and St. Paul arms of the YMCA merged and put a five-year moratorium on capital improvements.

Still inspired, the group started pursuing other sites in Elk River, Otsego and Rogers.

The spot eyed in Elk River was Lions Park, where Jackson Hills Residential Suites eventually were built and opened. A site in Otsego was considered, too. That’s when Larsen joined the effort.

Bauers, however, had a lead in Rogers, and city officials there expressed a willingness to partner. They were willing to build a parking lot and share in upkeep of the grounds where the private facility would stand.

Easy as 1-2-3, right?

Not exactly, as they had to put together a legal agreement that outlined the public-private partnership.

“That took way longer than any of us thought it could,” Johnson said. “We thought it would take one or two years.”

It took six years.

The group gives a lot of credit to Andy MacArthur, Otsego’s city attorney at the time and a tennis player, who worked on the agreement pro bono.

“Del helped us talk with the city,” Johnson said. “He understood the conversation better than any of us.”

Johnson and Ronning are grateful to Larsen and Bauers for getting them to the finish line.

“We were getting older and we realized if it didn’t happen soon it probably wasn’t going to happen,” Johnson said. “Scott came on board as we were looking at Otsego. I don’t think we would have survived without him.”

The four partners say they are equally committed to the project, but some have more money invested into it. They will get paid back first. All plan to pour their heart and soul into the club.

The tennis center is private in terms of the facility.

“We are responsible for everything in the building and within 5 feet around,” Bauers said. “The city is assisting us with the parking lot. They put it in, and they are responsible to plow, but we already know we will take care of that. They will do the mowing.”

Additionally, the city of Rogers is spending back with us the taxes we pay to them to use the facility for community education.

They sought tax abatement but did not get any.

“The school couldn’t see their way through to that, but the school district has partnered with us to some degree,” Bauers said. “They are allowing us court time on open outdoor courts,  if we have some drills or camp that we schedule. They will keep their tax money and we will get use of their courts.”

So what was the glue that kept this idea together long enough to see it through?

Ronning said he knew his teaching career would eventually come to an end, and he wanted something he could transfer his time and energy into after teaching.

“We were all looking for something that we could retire into,” Ronning said. “That said, retirement is not really in my vocabulary. I want to be busy until the day I die, if I can.”

Johnson retired as a mail carrier, and this was something where the two could be their own boss and do something they love.

“We love it when see little kids on the court, watching them develop, we talk about kids all the time,” Ronning said.

Larsen said it was a team effort through and through.  Ronning gave him his first ever teaching job, a move that positioned Larsen to play on Ronning’s USTA team.

They played a lot of tennis since those early days. Larsen has gone on to coach at Sartell High School, St. John’s for a decade and most recently at Buffalo High School for the last four years. He has gone on leave to see if he and the group can make his director of tennis position permanent.

“There’s a need for indoor tennis in this part of the state,” Larsen said. “When you look at the haves and the have nots of the tennis world, if you are down the road 30 miles, you can throw a stone and hit an indoor club. If you’re in Monticello, St. Micheal, Albertville, Buffalo, Delano, Elk River, where do you go? There wasn’t anything out there. The drive to build tennis has inspired all of us.”

Ronning got the bug first. He started coaching in 1975. As the years wore on, his wife would occasionally ask him when he would hang it up. About then, the next potential phenom would come along.

Mitchell Brandell was one of them. Now, he’s out of college and coaches at the RTC.

After Brandell, the Nelsons came along, he said.

“How do you stop when they’re coming along?” Ronning said. “As long as there is kids that want to play, I want to coach. If we have to make them play or talk them into playing, then I wouldn’t coach anymore.”

Tennis is already surging, with many nearby towns like Elk River, Monticello and St. Michael boasting of more than 60 kids in a sport that can only start 10.

Parents nowadays want their kids in structured activity.

Bauers said what excites him most is the wide span of generations the center will serve. He noted one day there were three courts filled with doubles matches of players 50-plus years in age who would normally go to another indoor club.

“They play three days a week here, and they just love it,” Bauers said.  

And for the next phase of their lives, pickleball will be an option, too, Bauers said.

“That’s right,” Ronning said. “Pickleball wasn’t part of our initial push, but we want to get in on that. We’re not pickleball guys yet.”

They sure have the option with the Rogers Tennis Center, and the opportunities for others are wide and varied. It was evident on a recent hot and humid day when all seven of the courts were filled.

“Scott was giving a lesson, Mitchell was giving a lesson, and the courts were full,” Bauers said. “I got teary-eyed.”

Finally, the dream came true.

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