HARLINGEN — After more than 25 years leading Harlingen’s growing tennis community, tennis pro Don VanRamshorst has just days left on the job after commissioners terminated his contract following months of what some players are calling “drama” at the city’s tennis center.
On Friday, he declined comment.
Meanwhile, City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez declined to disclose details behind the contract’s termination.
“We had some issues we had to deal with,” he said. “We want to increase the number of tournaments we have at the center.”
At City Hall, officials are searching for a new tennis pro to take over at the newly transformed H-E-B Tennis Center, which the city reopened in late 2021 following its long-awaited renovation.
“We’re going to hire our own staff to operate the tennis center,” Gonzalez said.
After his contract ends later this month, VanRamshorst, who does not draw a salary, is expected to continue offering private lessons at the center, he said.
Since 1997, VanRamshorst, an Association of Tennis Professionals tour player who offers private lessons, has helped build Harlingen’s tennis community from its home in a revamped trailer with a single bathroom at the foot of the city’s tennis courts.
For years, he helped push to expand the center which the city turned into what he called one of the state’s best tennis centers just over a year ago following its $712,000 renovation.
Then last year, members of the tennis community began speaking out about “drama” unfolding at the center nestled in Pendleton Park.
“He is quintessentially Pendelton Park’s knight in shining armor to keep the place alive,” tennis coach Jim Mayer stated in an email. “The city needs to re-hire Don and give him the honor he deserves for not stooping to the level of some others and creating more drama for the city.”
Late last month, members of the city’s tennis community spoke out in support of VanRamshorst, known for decades as “Coach Don,” as commissioners considered his contract’s termination.
“For the past 10 years, my daughter and I have witnessed this community become an inclusive outlet for our kids to excel and get skills they can’t acquire outside the H-E-B tennis center with the guidance of Coach Don,” Edna Gloria told city commissioners during a Dec. 21 meeting. “The guidance and encouragement we receive from Coach Don has had a positive impact on our lives.”
But she said her daughter stopped playing tournaments after VanRamshorst stopped running them.
“When Coach Don stopped running the tournaments, there were a lot of issues in the way the tournaments were handled and she doesn’t feel comfortable anymore due to the changes in the tournaments,” she said.
In a letter to commissioners, Jacob Worrell wrote VanRamshorst has helped him sharpen his talents on the courts since 2010.
“The level the players attain by training with any current coach at the H-E-B Tennis Center is due to Don and it has spread outside of Harlingen,” the school teacher wrote. “Players outside of Harlingen come to train here due to the results they’ve seen.”
Since VanRamshorst stopped working with tournaments, their numbers of players have dropped from about 120 per tourney to about 50, he wrote.
Meanwhile, Sarah Hefley told commissioners she has pulled her son out of U.S. Tennis Association competition as a result of changes at the center.
“Tennis is supposed to be for the children — that’s the reason my children are continuing in my footsteps along with the assistance of Coach Don helping a lot of the future generations of tennis players achieve their ability,” she said. “I will not allow him to play because (tournaments) are poorly run. They are very disorganized.”
Hefley also described the new pro shop’s sparse selection of merchandise.
“It’s hard for us to deal with this situation along with walking in and the shop’s completely empty due to the other person that was working there taking all the stuff,” she said, without offering detail.
After residents spoke out during last month’s meeting, Gonzalez told commissioners a personnel issue helped lead him to recommend VanRamshorst’s contract be terminated.
“There were some issues that came to light that occurred regarding some of the staff that he hired and if that had happened for any city staff there would have been some disciplinary measures taken,” he said. “He’s not an employee. He’s contract labor. So we felt that absent of taking any disciplinary action against him the only measure we could take was to terminate the contract.”
Gonzalez said he wanted VanRamshorst to draw more tournaments to the courts.
“We’re not getting the tournaments there that we need. We need to bring participation in that center up,” he said. “(Staff) has met with him quite a bit to try to get him to get tournaments there but we keep getting resistance from doing that.”
Gonzalez said he also wanted the pro shop to carry more merchandise.
“There are issues that we had regarding the pro shop — it’s now at bare minimum, nearly any merchandise,” he said. “We spent a lot of money on the H-E-B tennis center to try to get a place where people can go to buy some refreshments and perhaps some snacks.”
During discussion, Commissioner Daniel Lopez described two of the tennis community’s rival “factions.”
“It seems like in the past, since I got elected, it’s become a major sore point,” Lopez told commissioners. “It seems we’ve got two factions — these two factions going back and forth. We’ve had issues with the other side of this equation as well — the other faction.”
‘Pros and cons’
Meanwhile, Mayor Norma Sepulveda said residents have spoken out in support of VanRamshorst and a previous “subcontractor.”
“I want the community to know that we took into consideration everything that everyone said and came to share with us,” she said. “When we as a city put a city property in the hands of a private individual, we expect them to behave in a certain way and we have expectations for them to put the community first, and when that isn’t done anymore it no longer serves the city.
“It seems like over the last few months we’ve had a lot of members of the community come out on citizens communication and discuss kind of like pros and cons for the (tennis) pro that we currently have and then a prior subcontractor,” she said. “It appears that both of these individuals did really good work at the tennis center. It seems that this community center has become more about the contractors that we have and not about the community itself and the people that we serve. We want these individuals to still participate and use the courts. This isn’t about two different individuals or factions — it’s not about taking one side over the other. It’s really about what’s best for the community and the resources of city management.”