Pickleball to be the focus of county advisory board research, with commission discussion to follow

Commissioner Moran cites potential of expanding sports tourism, and Commissioner Hines talks of need for broader look at supporting community tourist destinations

Pickleball has become a very popular activity in Sarasota County. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran raised the topic during his report to his colleagues on Nov. 27. By the end of the discussion, the figurative door appeared to be open not only to a wide array of research on the topic but also on how the County Commission will address other major, potential economic development drivers in the community.

Moran’s focus was pickleball. He started out with the comment that it was “a bit surreal” for him even to be mentioning it. “With full disclosure,” he continued, he never even had seen a game played.

Nonetheless, Moran said, he had spent time with two residents who are big proponents of the sport and its ability to draw crowds from all over the country for tournaments.

“It is massivelypopular,” Moran pointed out. The residents who had met with him, he added, “are just simply feeling that we are missing —“ Moran stopped short, saying he refused to finish that sentence with “the ball.” Then he continued, “We’re missing the boat here.”

The City of Punta Gorda, he noted, is constructing 32 outdoor and eight indoor pickleball facilities that meet the standards of the USA Pickleball Association, “all in an effort to attract people … from all over.” Earlier in November, he said, Indian Wells, Calif., hosted the 2018 National Championships, and the city will do so again in 2019.

Commissioner Michael Moran. File photo

Having talked with county staff before bringing up the issue on Nov. 27, Moran pointed out that, north of Siesta Key, the county has only six pickleball courts, which are divided among four facilities. In Venice, a total of 14 courts are available at three venues.

The residents he had met with, Moran continued, had suggested that if the county had “a minimum of 12 courts in one spot,” that would enable the county to bid for tournaments, thus increasing sports tourism.

When he searched the Visit Sarasota County website to learn whether any pickleball information is listed on the agency’s Sports Commission webpages, Moran added, he was unable to find anything.

A Sarasota News Leader check of the county tourism agency’s website about a week later — on Dec. 3 — found pickleball referenced mostly in articles describing facilities available in parks, such as Pinebrook Park, which is owned by the City of Venice and maintained by Sarasota County. However, the News Leaderdid discover a mention of the Englewood Pickleball Series, which was set for Nov. 6-7 at the Englewood Sports Complex.

More research

On Nov. 27, Moran suggested that the county’s Parks Advisory and Recreation Council could study pickleball’s potential and come up with recommendations.

“I would support [pickleball] as an economic driver,” Chair Nancy Detert responded. “It’s the wave of the future.” The sport allows people — especially tennis players — to continue to be active as they age, she said, as pickleball games take place on a smaller court.

Commissioner Alan Maio added that he would support the construction of more pickleball courts across the county.

Then Commissioner Charles Hines asked Moran, “What measurable do you want to put on this economic driver?”

Moran replied that many master-planned communities are including pickleball courts because of the sport’s popularity. “People are literally deciding where to retire over these pickleball opportunities.” He would leave the measurables to the advisory board, Moran added.

However, Moran continued, he would like to know what pickleball players are interested in when they consider whether to attend tournaments. For example, he said, Manatee County recently had 440 people sign up to play at an indoor pickleball event. The participants came from all over the U.S., driving recreational vehicles, he added. “For me to claim to be the expert on this is quite the stretch.”

A graphic shows details of the plans for Phase I of Selby Gardens’ master plan. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Hines responded that he was being a bit “tongue-in-check” in asking about measurables. Still, Hines pointed out, he felt the board members at some point need to engage in a “broader discussion” about supporting economic drivers in the community. He noted Mote Marine, which plans to build a $130-million aquarium and science center at Benderson Park; as well as the master plan for which Selby Gardens is raising funds, to expand its facilities near downtown Sarasota; and the design for The Bay, with new park and cultural and arts amenities on the City of Sarasota’s waterfront property.

“We have some discussions coming in regards to what do we want to invest in and build to potentially bring [more tourism] here,” Hines said. The goal is to entice more visitors who will stay in area accommodations, he added, resulting in growth in the revenue from the county’s 5% Tourist Development Tax on rentals of those accommodations.

Perhaps one idea on which the commission should focus, Hines continued, is a multipurpose facility with indoor pickleball and volleyball courts, along with conference space.

Then Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed to the growing popularity of lacrosse. When he was in high school in Georgia, he said, he and four of his friends established the first series of competitions involving public high schools. The sport has grown to the level at which leagues operate at both the middle and high school levels, he continued, with Georgia state support. A lot of tournaments are played in that state, as a result, he added. Pickleball and lacrosse are among the top five fastest growing sports, Ziegler said.

This is one example of information on the Visit Sarasota County website about pickleball opportunities in the county. Image from visitsarasota.com

Older adults also play lacrosse, he noted. He would like for his colleagues to consider adding that into the broader discussion Hines had mentioned, Ziegler said.

“I would support a multi-prong approach,” Chair Detert added. However, she continued, she did not want to see the county end up in a position — as it did in connection with bidding years ago on the 2017 World Rowing Championships — of having to make a $20-million investment in a facility for pickleball. (Detert has been critical of the county’s investment in Nathan Benderson Park for the rowing facilities necessary for that 2017 international event.)

Moran finally made a motion to ask County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to direct the Parks Advisory and Recreation Council to look at the potential of public/private partnerships in expanding pickleball opportunities in the county, with the recommendations and research to be the focus of a future commission discussion. He wanted the advisory board to be as creative as possible, he said, in its approach to the issue.

Hines seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.