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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

lighthouse sports

This is to community development and tennis what being a lighthouse/searchlight for Jesus is all about... and it's my dad.

Original Article in the Greenville News HERE

Text follows:

Bobby Austell
Kroc Center organizer is a pro at fundraising

Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2007 - 2:00 am

Bobby Austell gets watery-eyed when he contemplates the possibilities that the planned Joan Kroc Center will provide.

"It's inconceivable, how many lives this will touch," says Austell. "This is not a five-year project -- this will help people for generations."

The planned Kroc Center, which can become a $50 million reality if local organizers can raise $15 million, will provide country-club amenities at affordable prices for all Greenville County residents.

"Fifteen million to bring in $50 million? That's the investment of a lifetime," says Austell, who, after a 40-year career in investment banking, knows a great deal when he sees it.

The potential in this deal energizes Austell, who envisions tennis programs that will unite new, young players with experienced instructors -- in a scenario that was beyond Austell's dreams when he learned the game of tennis 50 years ago. In fact, the Kroc Center is beyond anything Austell or other tennis lovers could have dreamed of just five years ago.

Austell is a passionate co-chairman of a campaign that needs $600,000 to reach its goal -- a considerable sum, but one that seems small in comparison to the $50 million of benefits that it can bring. That rate of return is certainly attractive to Austell.

Austell also knows, better than most, that the competitive sport of tennis can have a significant long-term impact on the life of a South Carolina youngster. In his native Spartanburg, Austell began playing tennis at age 15 and continues to play it today in senior amateur competition.

In an era when teaching professionals were rare in Upstate South Carolina, Austell learned his tennis with little coaching.

"I learned by watching good players. It was not until college that I had someone helping me," says Austell, the top player at Davidson College in the early 1960s.

Austell graduated from Spartanburg High in 1959 and majored in economics at Davidson. He served in the U.S. Army, earned an MBA and came to Greenville in 1966 to work in the investment division of the Liberty Corp.

That potential for quality instruction and the opportunities to play on 16 well-maintained courts is the stuff of Austell's latest dreams.

"We'll have a professional staff that will be able to teach the game to a lot of kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity," says Austell. "I'm excited about that. I'm passionate about the opportunity to do outreach programs to those living nearby."

Austell, a tennis coach at Christ Church Episcopal School, has long been inspired by the tennis exploits of the late Arthur Ashe -- whose raw talent was spotted on a tennis court in Richmond when he was a teen. Ashe later emerged as a Wimbledon champion and one of America's greatest players of his era.

"There could be some Arthur Ashe or Venus and Serena Williamses right here on the West End, who have never had a tennis racquet in their hand. This will bring tennis to these kids and it will help them the rest of their lives," says Austell.

With 16 courts, the Kroc Center will have the capability of serving about 3,000 tennis players a year.

"If only 10 percent of them take up the game, that's 300 new players a year. Then those kids will get other kids interested. It will help kids for years and generations."

Austell envisions clinics throughout the year and summer programs that will bring college players to the Kroc Center to serve as volunteer tutors for an audience of young people who do not have economic access to country clubs.

"For me, it's more than exciting -- I'm passionate," says Austell. "On top of that, there's an amazing endowment that will allow this to happen for many, many years -- for centuries."

The Kroc Center got Austell's attention two years ago, when the Salvation Army of Greenville made its bid for what was then a $46 million gift. Austell called Ben Crider, a close friend, to congratulate him on the Salvation Army's efforts.

He also wondered if the Kroc Center plans, which included swimming and golf, could also be amended to include tennis. Crider informed him that while tennis had not been addressed in the initial proposal, it could be added to the plan if the local organization could convince the Kroc Foundation of the need and explain how any additional costs might be covered.

Austell responded with a report that used USTA statistics to point out that Greenville presently has one public tennis court for every 13,000 residents; Columbia and Charleston, by contrast, offer one public court for every 7,000 residents.

"It was easy to prove there was a need," says Austell, who co-chaired a steering committee with Ralph Walker.

After agreeing to co-chair the steering committee, Austell was asked to co-chair the total campaign. "I don't know if that was a weak moment or an inspired moment," Austell says of his decision to accept that role.

"The timing was right with some things going on in my life," says Austell, who had recently retired from the banking business. "A year earlier, I couldn't have done either (role)."

The addition of the tennis program, which was later approved by the Kroc Foundation, raised the value of the planned local facility by another $4 million. Austell, who also serves on the Kroc Center board, headed a group that raised $1 million.

By late July, the Salvation Army had raised $14.4 million.

"We're coming down the third-base line. We're almost there," says Austell. "This is one of those things that seems too good to be true -- but it's really going to happen."

As Austell and others try to find the remaining $600,000, he also ponders the possibilities. He's held discussions with NCCAA Director Dan Wood about the possibility of staging the organization's national championships at the Kroc Center's 16 outdoor courts, and the possibility of a summer program that would enable students from those Christian colleges to serve as volunteer tutors at the Kroc Center.

"It just gets better and better," says Austell.

"It's all about helping people use sports excellence to help people. How many will get college scholarships 10 years from now because of this? There will be some. I can see it happen."

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