Local Pickle-ballers Mull Creative Ways to Add New Courts to the Mix

Talk about an ironic twist of fate. Bainbridge Island pickle-ballers find themselves in – well – a bit of a pickle. They have too many active players and not enough courts for them all to play on.

Pickleball paddle at BIHMThe game that was invented on the island by three dads and their families one summer in 1965, is now an international phenomenon, with more than 4 million people playing it internationally, including celebrities and mom’s in tennis shoes. Pickleball didn’t really take off on its home turf until around 2016 when a handful of locals began to play. Since then it has grown exponentially to the point where there are more than 450 to 500 active islanders regularly playing, and not always enough time and space for them to play.

Founders Courts courtesy of Bainbridge Island Pickleball, BIPRD - Battle Point ParkIf you followed the arch of the game’s evolution on the island, you know that Bainbridge pickleball supporters raised a bunch of private money a few years back to help the Bainbridge Island Metro Parks and Recreation District (BIMPRD) build the Founders Courts in 2021 at Battle Point Park. The six courts, plus the nearby grand entry way and historical kiosks are a shrine to the game, but the popularity of pickleball is moving beyond what the dedicated courts can comfortably handle.

According to Clay Roberts, a spokesperson for the newly anointed “Bainbridge Island Pickleball Community,” there are more than 100 people playing daily on the Founders Courts during peak weather times – a number that equates to roughly 3, 000 players a month playing the game. Roberts and others associated with the local pickleball community, estimate that the island would likely need up to 18 more courts to accommodate an annual player growth rate that keeps on surging – 100 percent annually over the past four years.

Founders Courts courtesy of Bainbridge Island Pickleball, BIPRD - Battle Point ParkPickle-ballers have approached the Parks District about adding new courts adjacent to the Founders Courts. One proposal in the mix is to convert the existing tennis courts – just east of the Founders complex – into a covered facility, with a roof and siding, that would include six more courts, plus in-door lighting. The cost of such a structure is estimated to be somewhere between $1.2 and $1.7 million.

Also, pickle-ballers are faced with another conundrum, what do with tennis players who may wish to use the Battle Point Park courts. “You can’t just throw them out,” said Bill Walker, another pickleball spokesperson. “We have to deal fairly with the tennis community.”

Pickleball meeting 2 meeting 2022At an informal gathering of pickle-ballers held recently at Sister Cider House, Roberts and Walker took input from the 92 or so people in attendance and batted around a number of ideas about how to accommodate the island’s pickleball growth in the near term and well into the future.

BIMPRD Commissioner Jay Kinney, who was also in attendance and briefly spoke to the crowd, said the Parks District is “favorable” to assisting pickle-ballers, as long they understand the parameters involved. Some of these include pulling together architectural and engineering plans for a new enclosed building, fund raising for the facility, and possibly financing a new tennis court at Strawberry Hill Park for island tennis players.

Said Kinney in an email prior to the pickleball gathering: “Before the Park District will turn these courts over to pickleball for its exclusive use, two replacement tennis courts must be built elsewhere (probably Strawberry Hill Park) so the tennis community does not lose two courts. I believe the commissioners are firm on this point.

“The Park District has already budgeted $200,000 for one new court,” Kinney added. “The tennis community is attempting to raise $200,000 for the second court. This will take several years for (them) to do this, at a minimum (and it may never happen). The cost estimate is probably outdated and too low, due to inflation. The pickleball community could speed up the process of building replacement tennis courts at Strawberry, and obtaining exclusive use of the courts at Battle Point Park, by contributing to the construction costs of the replacement courts. In the meantime, tennis and pickleball will continue to share the courts at Battle Point Park.”

Following Kinney’s presentation, Roberts said he thinks it’s fair that pickleball replace the tennis courts that are going to be lost at Battle Point, but he does not believe local pickle-ballers should financially support the creation of new tennis courts. “The idea that tennis needs four courts is not supported by the data,” he said, citing an informal study taken last July that revealed that only 5 tennis players a day used the Battle Point courts during the height of the summer. “We should not be building tennis courts for the tennis community. That’s their responsibility.”

Roberts emphasized that he and most pickleball supporters have nothing against Bainbridge tennis players per se. They are just “opposed to one user group supporting the expansion of another,” he said. “The average tennis player and the average pickleball player (on the island) want the same thing. Both of us just want good (court) options.”

Pickleball for all November 2022Roberts and others at the recent gathering said the Park District’s proposal raises several concerns, and they fall into three categories: “The proposal represents poor public policy, decisions are not based on data, and Parks is asking one user group to improve facilities for another user group. It is financially unfair… Pickleball players,” Roberts added, “would be paying more than tennis players for a new tennis court and Parks is not offering to provide any financial support for the expansion of pickleball facilities.”

The assembled group at the Pickleball gathering then voted on three options. Two people voted to accept the Parks District offer. Three people voted to reject the Parks District offer and keep things the way they are, and 87 people voted to reject the Park District’s offer and create a counter proposal.

One idea that was floated is repurposing the Battle Point tennis courts into pickleball courts using the current footprint and surface. That would cost an estimated $75,000. Another suggestion is to upgrade and expand the footprint of the existing tennis courts (with the possibility of more courts) and adding new asphalt. That work would cost an estimated $320,000. “We’re not asking the Parks to pay for the expansion of pickleball,” Roberts emphasized. “(The Parks) already have commitments to do a number of other important projects. What we are prepared to do is to raise the money ourselves that would be necessary to do the work.”

The pickle-ballers formed a nine-member steering committee that will review potential ideas for future options for in-door play during the winter months. The old Commodore gym, next to Bainbridge High School, and the Suquamish Gym on tribal land were two possibilities bandied about.

The Island Wanderer has published several stories about pickleball, if you’d like to peruse them, click here.

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