Emotions were running high Thursday afternoon, June 9, in council chambers as tennis and pickleball players exchanged verbal volleys – sometimes playful, often contentious – across the aisle. The debate centers around the fate of the city’s public racquet center as pickleball continues to grow in popularity.
On one side of the aisle the tennis players, some dressed in tennis clothing, are concerned about losing courts at the facility. On the other side the pickleball contingent decry the shortage of courts for their sport. Moderating the assembled mass is Ken Ballard, president of Ballard*King, the recreation consulting firm hired by the city to try to get a handle on this tempest in a teapot.
Daniel Smith, the city’s director of community, opens the meeting to assess what direction the city should go with the facility that functioned for decades as a tennis, and to a lesser extent, racquetball facility. Like retirement communities nationwide, the city is finding itself looking for answers.
Attendees, about 30 of them, were invited by Ballard to give their opinions. The discussion became a bit contentious.
Ballard assures the crowd that they are getting involved at the beginning of the project, though many of them express that they are tired of what they consider too many meetings about the issue at hand.
Smith makes sure the crowd knows that he won’t be making the decision. He seems relieved that the city has brought in Ballard.
“We’ve done the same thing over and over again and we’ve gotten the same results,” Dan Smith said. “I’m so glad the city council and the city manager made the decision to bring someone from the outside, an expert in the field, who’s done this time and time again, the same kind of venues, the same type of crowds. To try to put an end and move forward as a community that we can all call our own. We might not like the end result. Ken said something and I want to make it very clear, when that report comes back, I’m not doing anything with it. My plan is to bring it to the Parks and Rec board for their consideration. I’m glad he’s here. I thought it was time that we did this. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a professional planner.”
Ballard, for his part, was a tennis instructor during the boom years of tennis in the 1970s. He’s dealt with similar projects throughout South Florida. He currently has three active projects in the Miami area and one in Cape Coral. He asked the attendees a series of open-ended questions. They respond with gusto.
Avid tennis player, Marie Johnson, didn’t mince words while giving her assessment of the tennis-pickleball situation.
“We are angry, we are sad, we are pessimistic,” Marie Johnson starts. “We seem to be bombarded with mixed signals about what the city is going to do for pickleball and tennis. We are warned about important meetings about the future of the racquet center. Why do we have to continually come before council to justify our love of tennis? We love to play tennis. We want to play tennis. We moved to Marco Island because it’s a class city. We want a class city with tennis courts, clay courts. Ask anyone with aging knees and ankles and hips why clay courts are important. Another reason we’re cynical is because last month permanent pickleball changes were made to courts one and two. Pickleball nets were installed and a wall is being discussed between courts one and two. It looks like a decision has already been made about the future of the racket center. Another reason we’re cynical is because last November we were told in a meeting of the parks and recreation advisory committee that $8,000 was being set aside to refurbish court eight so it is playable again for tennis players. There has been no refurbishing of court eight. When we ask staff for updates, staff won’t discuss it. Tennis players consider the racket center equally as vital as our other parks. And we pay for that privilege – and we will continue to do so. But we don’t want to keep coming back here to justify our love of tennis. For a lot of us retirees, tennis is our lifeblood. We don’t have any problem with pickleball but it doesn’t belong at the racket center. There’s no room on the courts, there’s no room in the parking lot. I’m going to do some simple math here. You need 132 parking spaces and we have 54. Why do we have to live continually crowding pickleball on the racquet center? Stop this madness. What’s the best use for the racquet center? As a taxpayer, as a tennis player, I feel the best use of the racquet center is to use it for what it is designed, a place for members to play tennis. If you do that, parking problems will disappear. Keep the racquet center for tennis and find another place for pickleball.”
Mark McKinnon, a longtime parks and recreation director, who ran a tennis facility for 20 years, joins the meeting by phone. He cautions the assembled mass to play nice.
“I think the word angry needs to stop being used,” Mark McKinnon said. “I think we need to talk rationally with everybody and work together. It’s a tough thing, I know, being in that position myself years ago. It can happen. I think, from a numbers standpoint, pickleball has a challenge because there’s so many people that want to play. Tennis has a challenge because they don’t have as many players. I think tennis and pickleball can function equally. There’s examples around the country that show that tennis and pickleball can function together. Hilton Head Island is a good example of a classic tennis area that now has tennis and pickleball functioning side by side with each other and getting along just fine. As you go through this process, I think it’s important to understand the need for both.”
Michael Gaynor said he’s been through a similar scenario in his hometown. He is a tennis player who supports pickleball.
“What distresses me is that a lack of planning has made this pickleball versus tennis,” Michael Gaynor said. “It should not be that way. Sport is sport. I support pickleball 100 percent. My knees don’t. Want to hear some good planning. Two facilities on the island, the Y and the racquet center, face the same problem. So, what did the Y do about it? They said, ‘Here’s a demand, let’s meet it.’ They built a pickleball facility. What did we do about it? We did nothing. We’re going to cram everybody together in the tennis center. Everybody understands the parking’s insane. Talk about stats? You really can’t cram more pickleball players in unless you’re going to park in Cape Coral and drive down. Seriously. I don’t fight the pickleball players, I enjoy them. We’ve got the supply there. We need to supply their needs. We need to build pickleball courts. Period. The only problem with building them at the racquet center is the parking problem. You’re not going to solve it. Let’s not fight pickleball. Let’s not fight tennis. Let’s get together and build a quality pickleball center. The Y did it. The point is they said we’re not going to destroy tennis courts for pickleball. We’re going to supply pickleball brand new courts. So pickleball players, you’re being treated poorly. Nobody’s building you facilities. You have to cry and scream to get them to do anything at the racquet center. Stop the fighting. Let’s get together and find a way to build a quality pickleball center.”
Kim English actually embraced the anger of the crowd.
“I appreciate the anger,” Kim English said, “I appreciate you saying that you’re angry. I like to hear the emotion. Because that’s how we’re all feeling. We’re not happy. We’re here looking for what we can do. I come from an area up north where we went through the same thing. I like both sports. I think we can all agree that pickleball is growing, we don’t have parking. But what do we do in the short, medium and long term? I bought on Marco Island because of the racquet center. I’m sure others did, too.”
Peter Prodanov is on the front lines of the battle as a pickleball teaching professional at the racquet center. His remarks drew the ire of the tennis players across the aisle from him.
“I was an avid tennis player,” Prodanov said. “In all my dozen years I’ve been here, I’ve never, ever, once saw all those tennis courts used at the same time. They were never all in use, I don’t care what time of day it is. I played there for many, many years.”
Members of the tennis contingent shout their disagreement.
“During the season,” Prodanov continues, “I am constantly turning down people who want to come and pay $100 an hour to take pickleball lessons. I can’t do lessons in the mornings because I can’t take courts from the players to give lessons. The city won’t allow it. Which is fine. The center can’t make money doing clinics because we don’t have the courts available.”
Members of the tennis crowd continue to shout in disagreement as Prodanov speaks. Finally, Ballard steps in.
“In fairness here,” Ballard tells the crowd, “I want to make sure that through this process this doesn’t become an us versus them. That’s not the intent of this. There’s passionate people in both tennis and pickleball. It isn’t an issue of what’s more important. Even in your comments, I would spend more time on the particular needs of your sport rather than disparaging the other. We understand there’s limited space, limited time. There’s a lot of demands. Let’s keep it on a higher level and I think we’ll all be better off through this process.”
City councilor Greg Folley is sitting among the pickleball players. He takes the dais.
“Jose, if you can pull up the video,” Greg Folley said. Groans come from the tennis crowd. “Oh, come on,” one person complains. “He’s got a video,” another laments.
“I took this video,” Folley said, “during off season. It shows all of the people waiting to play pickleball. Here are the tennis courts.”
The tennis courts are empty.
“What time was that taken,” a crowd member challenges Folley.
“10 o’clock,” Folley replies.
“We had just finished playing,” a crowd member shouts.
“The point is all those people were parked,” Folley said. “All those people were there. We didn’t have courts to play on. And this wasn’t high season. This was April. You go into March it’s worse, much worse. In the short term, we need more courts because there is such a tremendous demand. A couple of things I’d say about how you manage things. We’ve already limited the number of memberships. In the morning, the demand is very intense. I think during the day during the on-season we’re not allowing temporary day membership people to come in. I think that’s probably necessary to manage it. Pickleball all needs to be together, long term it makes sense not to have some courts in one location and some courts somewhere else. Because we all rotate through and play together. You need to have a concentration of pickleball courts and not a split. I thought the visual was important because we see that every day. We see it in the morning, too. At 8 o’clock some of the tennis courts are used and some of them aren’t. The demand is just wildly out of whack.”
Margo Folley then enters the fray. She feels the island deserves the best facilities.
“I’m a pickleball player,” Margo Folley states. “But now you’re seeing the hostility that this multitude of meetings has created. Tennis players feel that they’re not being heard and pickleball players feel like they’re not being heard. You know where we’re at now. You don’t even need us here to have this meeting. Because the city knows what we need and so does the parks and rec. My last comment is, we are Naples/Marco Island. There should be no other better facility in the country than here. We have nationally ranked players. We deserve to have top notch tennis and pickleball.”
Ballard tells the crowd there’s a reason he’s been contracted. It’s not an easy answer.
“If this was an easy answer,” Ballard deadpans, “I wouldn’t be here. It’s not an easy outcome right now. We see the conflict often times between pickleball and tennis. The natural thing is, ‘We have a racket complex so we just need to convert that space. That’s kind of been the easy road out. We don’t really have the money to do all of it, and we need something quick, so we’ll just re-stripe the tennis courts, if they’re hard courts. So that’s been an easy solution. But that’s just kicking the can down the road. So, what are we? Are we a tennis center? Are we a pickleball facility? It’s such a dilemma. The outcomes have been radically different depending on one big factor that’s always an issue, everywhere we go, and it’s the reason things are done or not done, it’s money. You have one other issue here that’s not money, and that’s property. Not an easy solution here when you’re on an island. It’s a constant challenge when we work here in Florida. We just don’t have a lot of places to go with big additions. And another part of it is how do we fund the capital dollars to not only build anything new, but how do we maintain it long term and the commitment that goes with that. If we build new tennis courts, new pickleball courts, new racquetball courts, how do we make sure that we have money down the road so that in 15 to 20 years we can maintain that as a top flight facility. That becomes a dilemma. It becomes a value judgment. Where do we need to put our dollars when it comes to recreation? The simple answer is, it’s tough. And it’s something that has to be worked through. And those variables play into the solution ultimately. It’s based on ability to fund, availability of site. Those tend to be the bigger drivers of whether we can do this. I don’t know the answer to that.”
Folley will make his assessment and send it through the channels.
“Our report will go to staff first,” Ballard said. “They will be involved in looking at different pieces and recommendations as it comes in. We’ll make adjustments to that. Once that report has been accepted by staff it goes to the PRAC committee, they will look at that. They will make a determination about what they think about that. It’s their option then to send it to council or not. Or to send it back for revisions. When it goes to council, ultimately the decision lies with them, in terms of what they want to do with that. We do an extended process. That takes time. There are decisions that have to be made on a number of levels. It’s a transparent process. There will be steps along the way that make things clear.”
Lori Larkin thinks the answer is easy: build more pickleball courts.
“I don’t play tennis,” Lori Larkin said, “but I love everybody who loves their sport. And I’m sorry, statistically, it’s ridiculous how many people are playing pickleball compared to tennis right now. Naples has a 64-court facility and they still don’t have enough. You can’t make pickleball go away. It’s here and we need things. I just think we need to do everything we can. The tennis players need somewhere to play, but we need more courts for pickleball. I think it’s good for us as players and it’s good for the city.”