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Surf & Turf Tennis Club operator won’t renew lease; employee complaints surface

DEL MAR — The longtime operator of the Surf & Turf Tennis Club in Del Mar announced the sudden withdrawal of a proposal to renew his lease for the club after facing mixed reactions to their management style from employees and residents.

Alex Levie, head of Alex Levie Tennis Inc., confirmed he did not submit a bid to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, owner of the tennis club property, in response to its July 1 request for proposals to operate and manage the club under a four-year lease.

A month ago, however, Levie had publicly indicated that he intended to submit a bid to maintain control of Surf and Turf. In mid-July, I launched request urging the Fairgrounds to keep the club under the current management when reviewing proposals, stating that the current tennis lessons and other opportunities would cease with a change in management.

While the decision not to submit a bid seems like a 180-degree turn, Levie said it is something he has been considering for a while.

“The final call to not submit a proposal came about after years of evaluating when it would be the right time to go. With the pandemic now largely behind us and a fuller sense of normalcy beginning to take place, I feel the time is right to step aside and allow the next group to carry on the Surf & Turf Tennis Club’s valuable work. I know this may surprise some, but I feel the time is right to begin the process of winding down operations,” Levie said.

Levie said he will work with current employees as club management is transferred “to assist them in transitioning to other opportunities as smoothly as possible.”

Surf and Turf Tennis Club manager and coach Alex Levie, back left, stands with the 14 and under junior team in 2013. Photo courtesy of Surf and Turf Tennis

Over 1,100 individuals signed the “Save the Surf and Turf Tennis Club” petition. Many left comments detailing fond memories of learning to play tennis at the courts and playing alongside the Levie family.

Employees of the club also seemed to believe the Levies would fight to maintain control of the club, but not all of them were happy about it. Behind the scenes, current and former employees have reached out to the Fairgrounds to express serious concerns about Levie’s management, from poor treatment of staff to labor law violations.

The 22nd District Agricultural Association, which manages the Fairgrounds and their leased properties, briefly discussed these concerns during their Aug. 9 meeting. Fairgrounds CEO Carlene Moore said the allegations of labor violations, in particular, could be a factor in deciding which proposal to grant in September.

“We have received several complaints related to the current operator, and while the item is not scheduled for discussion this month, it will be next month because the board will consider the RFP,” Moore said. “We are not the employer in this case, and the contract issues are really the responsibility of other agencies that oversee employee matters. However, any violation in labor law could, in essence, be relevant information for RFP considerations.”

Emails sent to the 22nd DAA between late March and late July and included in the board’s Aug. 9 agenda packet outline several employees’ concerns about dismissing behavior toward employees and lack of financial integrity in the form of inconsistent payments under-the-table compensation and tax evasion. The 22nd DAA redacted the names of all senders.

One former employee claimed they were paid under the table with no tax withheld, and another who worked at the club around eight years ago said they were sometimes left waiting up to three months for a paycheck. Both said they reported these practices to the state labor commission.

In a July 27 email, another employee said they and their co-workers were all provided Receipt of Employment forms the week prior by Levie, despite having worked there for several years already. They also alleged that most of their coworkers had been paid under the table for years.

The employee further claimed that upon inquiring why they were receiving this paperwork, they were told that it was to bring files up to date for the RFP process and that they would all appear as new employees.

“Please don’t be fooled. I know this is a huge liability for the fairgrounds. We as employees desperately want change in management!” the email stated.

Levie declined to respond to the specific allegations in the emails but said he takes them seriously.

“I became aware of these complaints very recently. I take all allegations of this nature seriously and did assemble a legal team to look into the specific claims. That investigation continues, and I can’t speak to any preliminary findings. Suffice it to say, I made it a priority over the last three decades always to treat everyone associated with the Surf & Turf Club with dignity and respect,” he said.

He also did not respond to specific inquiries regarding whether employee complaints factored into his decision not to follow through with a proposal.

With Levie now out of the running, the question remains of who will take over club operations. Fairgrounds spokesperson Luis Valdivia said they cannot share the names of respondents who submitted proposals until after the scoring process is complete.

A notice of intent to award a bid will be shared on Aug. 22, followed by the actual awarding of the contract on Aug. 26. The board must then approve the decision at their Sept. 13 meetings.

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