A new, formal city-school district partnership will mean new lights for tennis courts at Laurel Park and may be the first step in improving and expanding those facilities, said Jeff Gifford, Conway High School tennis coach.

The state approved a $10,000 joint-use agreement grant to improve the four courts. That money will pay for four sports lights at $2,500 to $3,000 each, smaller tennis rackets and larger tennis balls, according to the grant application. The school district already has the money, said Lauralee McCool, director of Community Development for Conway.

The collaborative project — expected to begin this school year — is meant to provide opportunities for residents and students to be more active and live healthier lives, McCool said.

"The purpose of the grant is to increase physical activity," McCool said.

In July, the school board formally approved the agreement, which outlines, in part, the cooperative agreement and property use of the courts. School board members said at the time they hoped to see more grants and more partnerships like the one for the lights.

Although the city and district have shared facilities, including walking trails and playground equipment, this is the first formal, written agreement, McCool said. And, what Conway and the district are doing is drawing attention, she said.

Last week, officials from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention toured Laurel Park to look at the innovative joint-use agreement project meant to reduce obesity, McCool said. Conway’s park is among only five such joint projects the agency toured nationwide, she said.

"Conway is standing out as a healthy community in Arkansas," McCool said.

The tennis courts are in near constant use because tennis is a growing sport in the area, said Lessa Potts, president of the Conway Area Tennis Association. The association recently began holding drills at Laurel Park, she said. Having the better lights will mean tennis drills can go on after dark when people get off of work, Potts said.

As nice as the lights will be, Potts and Gifford said Conway needs more.

This school year, Gifford turned away about six students who wanted to play tennis because of lack of court space, he said. They weren’t old enough to drive themselves to other courts, and there isn’t enough space at Laurel Park, he said.

Gifford wants to see the kind of tennis courts that handle tournaments. He said the city plans to build something to meet the growing demand for tennis courts. The city wants a multipurpose facility, and the grant is a "launching tool" toward that goal, Gifford said.

"The joint-use agreement is a great step to getting started to bringing a real tennis complex to our area," Gifford said. "It’s a huge deal for us that we have a place by the school that we can always go play at."