By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
In 2001, when Vishnu Maharaj was hired as facility manager of the Crandon Park Tennis Center, the complex took in only $9400 per year in court fees. Corrupt employees pocketed cash instead of putting it into the register. The courts were in disrepair, and player amenities, like water coolers and benches, were scarce.
By November 2006, court fee revenue had grown to $86,000 annually a 900 percent increase. Costs had been reduced by fifteen percent. Patrons could call the park and be matched with a player of equal skill. There were new ball machines. The four red clay and grass courts, out of operation before Maharaj's arrival, were in top condition.
Then, in November, Maharaj's immediate supervisor, Tim Byrnes; and an employee with the county's human resources department, Yolanda Fuentes-John, asked him to resign. The claim: "He had essentially been running a private business [at the tennis center] for nearly six years," says Vivian Rodriguez, director of Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation.
Crandon Park is one of South Florida's most prominent sports venues. The 13,300-seat stadium was completed in 1994 in a lush area on pricey Key Biscayne. It's home to the fifth-largest tournament on the professional tour, the Sony Ericsson Open (formerly the NASDAQ-100 and, before that, the Lipton), where the world's top-ranked players (Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Andy Roddick) compete for a $6.9 million prize before some 270,000 fans. The event is broadcast in 150 countries. The facility also hosts junior tournaments featuring nationally ranked players like Brennan Boyajian of Weston and Lauren Albanese from Coral Springs. During nontournament time, Crandon is home to coaches and staff of the United States Tennis Association's Youth Development Program, which trains the top young players in the country.
Before working at Crandon, Maharaj already had a lengthy tennis resumé. A native of Trinidad, he traveled to the United States in the Seventies because of tennis. "We were a family of seven kids, and we all came to this country on tennis scholarships," he says. After playing the game at Georgia Southern University and coaching for a short time, he ran a tennis resort on St. Simons Island in Georgia for more than 25 years.
When he arrived at the Key Biscayne facility, Maharaj found a mess, he says. Employees would close the pro shop and go to lunch, leaving a note on the door. The bathrooms would often be locked during operating hours. The shop phone would go unanswered. Only ice-cream bars and Powerade were available for purchase.
Maharaj began his reformation by remedying the customer service problems. He took boxes of inventory from storage and placed the contents on display. Other changes followed. "Because I'm a tennis player, when I go to a facility, I expect to be able to get something to drink, to get my racket repaired, to have water on the courts and a bench where I can sit in the shade."
He also cut costs: Upon arrival, he says, the facility's electricity bill was as high as $172,000 per year. Water heaters for showers used only during tournament time ran all year. Lights were left on unnecessarily. Soon Maharaj had shaved approximately $20,000 off the power bill.
And revenues increased. The reason, Maharaj contends, is that he required employees to stop pocketing fees and letting people play for free. Meeting room rentals had generated no income the year before his arrival, but according to Maharaj, groups had been meeting in the clubhouse for fifteen years.
"Our revenues couldn't have gone from $9400 to $85,500 just like that," he says. "It was easy to increase the numbers because I made sure the numbers went into the register."
Despite the crackdown, Maharaj was well liked by many. Paul Roetert, managing director of the USTA Player Development Program, describes him as professional and courteous, adding that the facility was always in "great shape" during Maharaj's tenure. Two employees at Crandon both speaking anonymously for fear of reprimand say he was a good boss, they enjoyed working with him, and he turned the place into a functioning business.
This past year, Maharaj received an award on behalf of the county at a convention of the Florida chapter of the USTA, which named Crandon Park its Member Organization of the Year. The county gave him a raise each year his annual salary rose from $34,000 to $50,000.
So why did he have to go? For five years Maharaj and his staff operated a racket-stringing machine in the pro shop. He advertised the service in county literature, and estimates fifteen to twenty rackets per month were repaired. (A staff member at the pro shop says the number was as high as twenty per day before the tournament.)
The machine was Maharaj's own. He supplied the materials and charged $25 for racket stringing, $10 for employees and players of the USTA Youth Development Program (which comprised the bulk of the work, says Maharaj). Five dollars of that fee was commissioned to the staff member who strung the racket. Of the remainder, 10 percent went into the county register and 90 percent into Maharaj's pocket.
Then, this past fall, someone sent an anonymous letter to the park and recreation department informing it of the stringing business, which is a breach of county policy. The letter also claimed Maharaj was driving a county pickup truck to and from his residence, a violation of a rule prohibiting use of public property for personal use. The county performed an audit and, on November 16, asked for Maharaj's resignation.