Merger talks are now under way between Vineyard Youth Tennis, the nonprofit program that has been providing free tennis instruction for Island children since 1997, and the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard.

Leaders at both organizations said this week the talks are still in the very early stages, and that the merger would need approval from the town of Oak Bluffs and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as well as a sustainable financial plan, among other things.

Michael Halisky doing what he does best — getting Island youngsters excited about tennis. — Mark Alan Lovewell

If the merger does go forward, it will mark a distinct new chapter for the tennis center, which until now has been funded solely by an Island philanthropist. The vision for the future includes possibly opening up the facility for more community use while still maintaining the core program of free instruction for Island children.

The tennis center operates out of a facility off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs, situated on 13 acres across the road from the Deer Run subdivision and near the Goodale’s sand and gravel pit. The facility includes four clay courts, two of them covered by a bubble in the winter months. About 300 children are in the program, all but about 50 of them year-round Islanders. The facility is restricted for use by youth aged six to 18, save a handful of charity tournaments that are held annually.

The benefactor for the program is Gerald DeBlois, a longtime West Tisbury resident.

Youth tennis board chairman Christopher Scott told the Gazette this week that Mr. DeBlois, whom he said has invested some $12 million in the program and facility since 2001, will continue to pay for the program through the coming summer.

“And now we are charged with finding a sustainable model,” Mr. Scott said.

Boards for both organizations recently voted to pursue the merger.

“If we do this, we will be turning over an asset that’s worth several million dollars, and there’s no capital campaign involved,” Mr. Scott said. Citing precedent, he said other YMCAs host tennis programs, including one in Hanover.

Jill Robie, executive director at the Y, emphasized the early nature of the talks.

“It would be premature to articulate much,” she said. “The board has voted to pursue talking about a possible merger and see whether it makes sense . . . we are running numbers right now to see how it would work. It’s very premature for me to say how the Y might do this.”

Over the past 20 years, the tennis program has introduced hundreds of young Islanders to the sport. In recent years the effect of the program has been visible in the interscholastic tennis program the regional high school, where both the boys’ and girls’ tennis teams have climbed to the top ranks in their leagues. The girls’ team has won the state championship for three straight years.

The tennis center was approved by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals in 2001, but not without controversy. There were concerns from neighbors about traffic, and there was widespread suspicion about the philanthropic venture. In the end the project was approved with conditions that strictly limited its use. The center opened in the summer of 2002. In 2005 some of the restrictions were eased slightly, and the center was allowed to expand parking and host a few charity events.

“This has been a success story and a huge gift to the Island. Now everyone has to come together to figure out how to sustain it,” Mr. Scott said. “We’re very excited about the possibilities. The goal would be to open the facility for the entire community.”

Victoria Scott (front center) and Kat Roberts, now top-ranked high school tennis players, got their start at the youth tennis center. — Mark Lovewell

The annual operating budget at the youth tennis center is about $600,000, Mr. Scott said, and the nonprofit organization makes payments to the town in lieu of taxes. He said when the board began exploring the next steps, a wide range of options were discussed, including an all-volunteer model. But in the end, he said joining partners with the Y emerged as a logical choice.

Ms. Robie noted that there are other YMCAs with tennis programs, and said she recently paid a visit to the Hanover Y to see the program there.

But she also said the Y is proceeding with all due caution given the unique nature of the youth tennis program — which she praised.

“You have a donor that has been one of the most generous donors to a nonprofit on the Island for many years,” she said. “His vision was to make sure that each child on the Island had access to tennis instruction.”

She continued: “Championships and all that is great, but it would be important to the Y that that legacy would continue. How that would happen is too early to say. Free tennis — it’s not really free, they got tennis that was paid for by someone else.

“For us to be involved, I would need to be sure there is sustainability going forward. If the Y were to get involved with this, we have would have a big responsibility — it’s not just a program, it’s a responsibility to continue the legacy.

“And I’m flattered that the Y has been thought of to take this over.”