It was founded in 1961 as a haven for black tennis players and inner-city kids, who were not always welcome at other clubs in the city.
Now the Sportsmen’s Tennis & Enrichment Center in Dorchester, believed to be the oldest club of its kind launched by African-Americans, could welcome the world’s greatest tennis players if Boston is named host of the 2024 Olympic Games.
Boston 2024, which had originally proposed holding Olympic tennis at Harvard University, announced Thursday a new plan to move the event to the venerable but little-known club and surrounding land in Harambee Park.
Relocating the event from the world’s wealthiest university to a gritty nonprofit bordered by public housing developments is part of a strategy by Boston 2024 to shake off criticism that it is a pet project of the city’s downtown elite.
At a time when the bid committee is looking to build public support in Boston the move could also begin to address criticism from minority residents, who have questioned what the Olympic bid has to offer their communities.
“What would be so exciting for us would be to have our own youth . . . coming out in their own neighborhood to see individuals striving to be their very best,” said Toni Wiley, Sportsmen’s executive director, standing on an outdoor tennis court under a beating sun during Thursday’s news conference.
Boston 2024, the local bid committee, unveiled an ambitious plan to build two temporary courts in Harambee Park: one to hold 10,000 spectators and one to hold 7,500. They would be removed after the Games, and the park would be refurbished. The bid committee plans to leave a permanent 2,500-seat court that Sportsmen’s would use for its programs and to host regional and national pro and college tournaments. The club’s existing courts would be used during the Games for practice and as a place for athletes to warm up, and possibly for early matches.
Wiley floated the idea of a collegiate “tennis beanpot,” modeled after the popular hockey tournament, “in about 10 years.”
Rich Davey, the bid committee’s chief executive, said there were no significant problems with holding tennis at Harvard. Dorchester, he said, just proved to be a better location.
He said the committee will explore refurbishing some of the club’s outdoor courts and installing lights for nighttime play.
Boston 2024 estimated the cost of the tennis venue at $33 million to $37 million, to be paid from the committee’s operating budget, which comes from private sources such as corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, and broadcast fees.
First impressions within the neighborhood on Thursday were mixed.
Some residents said that holding Olympic tennis there would shine a spotlight on an often-overlooked corner of the city, while others said the Blue Hill Avenue corridor, which has seen gun violence and poverty over the years, has more pressing needs.
“How is a 2,500-seat tennis stadium going to fuel economic activity and create stable jobs for people in this area?” said Hewan Kassa, 27, a nonprofit employee who lives near the park. “Dorchester is a poor community. Latinos aren’t doing good here. Black people aren’t doing good here.
“There are so many other priorities that are at the bottom for these people that should be at the top. I just think it’s a horrible idea. Horrible.”
But Willie E. Hicks Jr., a vice president of Hick’s Auto Body, Inc., on the edge of Harambee Park, said the Games could be a boon for the neighborhood.
“It’s nice for us, and for state and city leaders, to reach out to a wonderful part of the city, because it’s not all about the Seaport,” said Hicks, who played tennis at the club as a boy and later sent his daughter there. “There are good things and good stories that are going on right here.”
Hicks said the center not only introduced him to tennis but taught him dedication and respect, skills he later put to use as the first black quarterback at Boston College.
Sportsmen’s founder, a strict disciplinarian named James A. Smith Jr., believed that teaching tennis to inner-city children could help keep them out of trouble and in school. “Put a kid on a court and you’ll keep him out of courts,” Smith, who died in 1997, often said.
Conway Haynes, a 76-year-old founding member of the club, said Smith wanted it to serve not only children but also older black tennis players at a time when most of the other clubs in the area were exclusively white and prohibitively expensive.
“There was no place for us to play, and he made it possible for now thousands of youngsters to come and play,” Haynes said in an interview Thursday. “I’m very proud of what we’ve stood for in the community. Through busing and though it all, we managed to stay strong and provide a safe haven.”
One of the club’s early supporters was tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who headlined fund-raisers for the tennis center.
These days, the club has about 300 adult members and serves about 5,000 children a year, Wiley said.
It runs tennis clinics, an after-school program, a summer camp, and Volley Against Violence, in which Boston Police officers play tennis with young people. Recently, the club launched a fitness center with Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“It’s one of the gems in our community,” said Glenn Lloyd, a founder of City Fresh Foods and a former board member who played at the club as a boy. “It touches so many people. Whoever goes in there goes ‘Wow. There is such a good feeling here, with people who actually love the sport, love tennis.’ ”
Hebert Young, 76, a retired construction and railroad worker who was sitting outside his home at the Franklin Field housing project on Thursday, was excited about the prospect of Olympic tennis in the park.
“I would love it,” he said, as he gazed out on the Sportsmen’s Club. “I could watch it from here. I wouldn’t even have to leave my front door.”
Staging Olympic tennis in Harambee would be in keeping with Boston 2024’s philosophy of holding the majority of events in and around Boston and within a short walk of a public transit station. The park is close to the Talbot Avenue station on the Fairmount line. It is about a mile from the Shawmut station on the Red line and about 1.3 miles from Ashmont station.
The venue would host five Olympic events over nine days, and six Paralympic events over eight days.
Boston 2024 announced last week that Olympic sailing would move from Boston Harbor to New Bedford and Buzzards Bay.
The bid committee has hinted that it will propose moving additional events to other parts of the state, as it releases its new venue plan over the next three weeks.
The sailing and tennis venues are inexpensive and easy compared to the more difficult venue plans still to come.
Boston 2024’s future is largely riding on how its new venue plan addresses the two most challenging Olympic facilities, a temporary Olympic stadium at Widett Circle and an athlete’s village at UMass-Boston.
The US Olympic Committee is facing a September deadline to formally nominate a bid city, and it is hard to imagine the USOC moving forward with a Boston bid if the new venue plan falls flat.