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Pickleball popular — and not — in Cape Coral

By Staff | Feb 13, 2020

Pickleball — one of the fastest-growing sports in America, especially among seniors who want to get a little recreation, but may not be up for traditional tennis.

The sport has its big fans and, here in the Cape, its detractors, especially some who live near the parks where needed new courts are to be placed.

For those cities that have embraced the sport, like Naples and Punta Gorda, pickleball has become a gem in the rough, bringing in millions of dollars in revenues from hotel stays, restaurants and the like.

Now, Cape Coral, with the proposed Lake Kennedy Tennis Center being planned, it would like to join in on the trend.

Additional courts are part of the city’s voter-approved $60 million Parks Master Plan.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 in Washington state by Joel Pritchard, almost by accident. He and his friends wanted to play badminton, but couldn’t find a birdie. They got a plastic ball, lowered the net and made paddles out of pieces of plywood.

The legend that the game was named after their dog, Pickles, is not true. In fact, it was the other way around, since the dog wouldn’t arrive until two years later.

“I said it reminded me of the Pickle Boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats,” said Joan Pritchard, Joel’s wife, years later.

The sport has steadily grown, eventually arriving in Florida, where it became a hit, first at The Villages, then to Southwest Florida.

In Cape Coral, there are few places to play, and even then, they are on tennis courts that are also lined for pickleball. Jim Jeffers, Camelot and Joe Stonis parks are jammed up in the morning, some residents there for tennis, and others for pickleball.

“Our group had a hard time getting on courts. Two courts can handle about 12 people. Once you get more than that, you’re sitting around,” said pickleballer Mark Hamlyn. “But we’ve had no complaints from anyone about pickleball.”

For Hamlyn, who started playing four years ago in Michigan, it’s less about the sport and more about staying active and meeting new people.

Irene Windett, who only started playing last year, said the potential for more courts has everyone in the community excited.

“We don’t have any designated pickleball courts and we have to share with the tennis players who can’t play because we’re there. This time of year, where we have all the snowbirds, we have to share the court every day. So, we’re excited about having these courts,” said Windett, adding they sometimes go to Punta Gorda to play.

That could soon change.

In 2018, Cape Coral residents voted to approve a $60 million expansion of the city parks system. The 15-year bond will fund improvements at 19 current parks, as well as build seven new neighborhood and three community parks and Yellow Fever Creek Environmental Park.

This is to include pickleball courts at many of the parks. Generally, the parks will have between two and four courts, especially at Sands, Gator Circle and Giuffrida parks.

“These are not just parks for residents within four streets from the parks, these are for the whole community. People want pickleball, even the younger generation is getting into it,” said Parks and Recreation Director Kerry Runyon. “Neighbors who want to play want the opportunity to play before it gets dark.”

One park, Lake Kennedy Racquet Center, will have eight tennis courts and 16 pickleball courts, with the possibility of another 16 pickleball courts.

In Punta Gorda, pickleball came about a decade ago and became a big hit, especially among those who live in Cape Coral and North Fort Myers, who would wait for court time at South County Regional Park to play.

The city soon built eight courts at Gilchrist Park, where they even held some tournaments.

It was the program’s success that actually drew the first of the complaints from neighbors, who protested the noise from what they said was the sheer number of people and from the sound of paddle hitting ball.

There are still four courts at Gilchrist. However, tournament play is now at the Pickle-Plex on the Florida Southwestern University campus, away from any residential neighborhoods.

“Gilchrist was such a small area and homes were right across the street. When you have 350 people show up for three days, that’s very taxing on a neighborhood,” said Gloria Reilly, secretary of Pickle-Plex. “We were fortunate enough to connect with the college and the mayor of Punta Gorda, Nancy Prafke told us to dream big.”

There are 16 courts currently there, with 16 more planned soon, as well as eight indoor courts with a pro shop and restaurant and three show courts for major tournaments, such as the World Championships that were held there in December.

The Pickle-Plex has been an economic success for Charlotte County. In just eight months, it has brought an economic impact of $2.3 million, Reilly said.

“With expansion, I can have larger tournaments and not have people having to wait. I can hold camps using eight courts and still have the rest for people to play,” Reilly said.

In Naples, the impact has been even greater. The city got in on the ground floor with pickleball, which is highlighted by East Naples Community Park, one of the largest pickleball complexes in the state and home to the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships, an international event that last year brought Collier County more than 2,200 players and $5.8 million in economic impact.

Jim Ludwig, executive director for Pickleball for All, said the sport has been so amazing that people are moving here for the pickleball and has changed many lives for the better.

“People now have activity that didn’t have it before. Naples is one of the healthiest cities in the nation, and one of the reasons is pickleball,” Ludwig said.

In North Fort Myers, the rec center offers pickleball five days a week on six courts marked out on the gymnasium floor. There is also a pickleball league at Herons Glen, with a list of members nearly three pages long.

As with anything, there are detractors. Some fear noise and crowds, especially with larger complexes.

Here in Cape Coral, residents near Sands Park were among the first locally to oppose pickleball in September during a public input session, saying the sound of wooden paddles and pickleballs, would create too much noise.

Last week, residents near Giuffrida Park sent out a petition to neighbors opposing a pair of pickleball courts proposed for the park, saying that the courts would endanger wildlife, children, the environment and even lead to an increase in crime.

“We haven’t had any crime issues with pickleball. Noise concerns, yes. Sands will get a buffer with a mound and shrubbery and we’re planning the same with Giuffrida with shrubs and trees,” Runyon said.

Reilly and Ludwig conceded that traffic can be an issue, but as far as crime is concerned

“That’s absurd. What people like to do is put fear into people. Most people have no clue what pickleball is. Most of us are seniors. We’re going to play an hour in the morning and go home to take a nap,” Hamlyn said. “Someone in Punta Gorda said he got a stroke from people playing pickleball? A local TV station reported this and it was the most absurd thing I ever saw in my life.”

“I’ve seen an increase in traffic, definitely. We have 400 people who show up at the park daily. We don’t get complaints about noise. We get some with the lights,” Ludwig said. “People there know we have events and there will be noise. But most of the people who play are over 50 and they aren’t there to commit crime.”

Hamlyn said he has played at these parks for two years and has yet to hear a complaint. If anything, their group has grown.

“People come and see us play and they ask us about it and we teach them how to play,” Hamlyn said. “We’ve taught people and the beauty is that it’s inexpensive.”

“It’s a fun sport, it’s good for everybody and it’s healthy. It’s not going to die. I’ll die before this sport does,” Ludwig said.